The fight over fish is real, and it's only going to get worse

The critical marine stocks that humans depend on for food could become even more endangered due to climate change, overexploitation, and poor enforcement of existing regulations, raising fears among some experts that fish and other forms of sea life are already becoming another source of geopolitical competition.

Examples abound. Only last month, a fleet of French fishing vessels chased five British boats from a scallop-rich area (CNN) off the coast of Normandy in an incident dubbed the ‘scallop wars’ by English-language news media. The problem? The French fishermen, whose fishing season starts in October, were furious their British counterparts, who are not limited by law, started trawling for mollusks a month earlier.

“We have quotas, we have hours and they have nothing, no quotas, seven days out of seven they fill their boats. They come, they dredge and they fill their vessel and they go home. They work a month earlier than us and they leave us the crumbs,” said French fisherman Anthony Quesnel.

Half a world away, fishing disputes in the South China Sea present a serious risk of devolving into more serious armed conflicts, according to Foreign Policy magazine.

While it’s unlikely nations would go to war over fish, some experts say these examples highlight the fierce competition countries are engaged in over access to shifting populations of fish and other forms of sea life that are under severe strain due to overexploitation, climate change, and an ever-growing human population.

“Marine species, not just scallops but a lot of the key species that we depend on, like cod, for instance, or sea bass, have been increasingly under strain due to climate change, warming seas, more acidic oceans,” said Heather Alberro, an assistant lecturer at Nottingham Trent University in the UK and an expert on how humans are affecting the environment.

“The scallop wars are just I think the beginning of things to come that are far worse,” she told WikiTribune.

Whole salmons lay stacked in rows at Billingsgate Market, waiting for a buyer. Source: George Engels/WikiTribune
Whole salmons lay stacked in rows at Billingsgate Fish Market, waiting for a buyer. Fishmongers say salmon used to cost less than half of what it does now only a few years back. Source: George Engels/WikiTribune

Fish facts

Demand for fish has been growing steadily for decades, and will keep doing so. The global population is expected to rise from just under 8 billion people today to almost 10 billion by 2050. 

Meanwhile, average fish consumption per capita has more than doubled since the early 1960s, from 9 kilograms in 1961 to 20.2 kilograms in 2015, according to the latest annual report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN).

In other words, the annual increase in fish consumption has been double that of population growth, and also exceeded that of meat from all terrestrial animals combined, according to the FAO.

Billingsgate Market set against the skyline of London's Canary Wharf. Source: George Engels/WikiTribune
Billingsgate Fish Market set against the skyline of London’s Canary Wharf. Source: George Engels/WikiTribune

Over the past few decades, most of this growth has been supplied by the development of aquaculture; farmed fish production is expected to overtake wild fish capture this year. Even so, aquafarming requires enormous amounts of fish meal – sprats, juvenile herring and anchovies, among others – which wild fish also rely on.

“If you’re removing fish from the wild to feed fish in a farm scenario, then you’re going to have an impact on the wild population because you’re removing a food source, aren’t you?” said Danial Hatherley-Hurford, Fisheries Countryside Environment Lecturer at Plumpton College, while showing students through Billingsgate Fish Market in east London on a cloudy Friday morning.

Although wild fish capture volumes have remained relatively steady since the late 1980s, overfishing remains a persistent and growing problem. According to the FAO, “it seems unlikely that the world’s fisheries can rebuild the 33.1 percent of stocks that are currently overfished in the very near future, because rebuilding requires time, usually two to three times the species’ life span.”

Still, Hatherley-Hurford told WikiTribune he sees some cause for optimism. “From a consumer perspective, we need to put more pressure on sustainable fish sources. We need to recognise what we’re buying. And I think that that has happened. There has been a shift that way.”

Cause for concern

Still, competition on the high seas for fish is fierce, and sometimes violent. For example, Indonesia blew up 23 Vietnamese and Malaysian fishing vessels in early 2016 it said were trespassing in territorial waters (The Wall Street Journal, may be behind paywall). Earlier this year, Argentina issued an international capture order for five Chinese fishing boats it said were fishing illegally in its territorial waters after the Argentinean coast guard fired warning shots.

China, which has the world’s biggest and farthest-reaching fishing operation, is often singled-out (Business Insider) for using its fishing fleet to further its regional geopolitical aims, especially in the contested South China Sea.

“It used to be [that] the flag followed trade, helping you acquire colonies; now, the [Chinese] flag follows fishing, helping you acquire indisputable sovereignty,” James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, told Foreign Policy. “In both cases, private interests act as the vanguard, justifying the state’s reaching for the gun.”

A fisherman anchors a boat at a fishing harbour, as Typhoon Mangkhut approaches, in Shenzhen, China September 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Additionally, experts like Alberro worry that other human-related activities like climate change are changing marine ecosystems in ways that we cannot fully track, much less understand.

“The take-home message is that just when we think we’ve figured something out, [that] we’ve figured out where a particular species is going to be, [where it] is going to migrate, we just keep hitting against uncertainty around what exactly is happening.”

In practice, Alberro said this might mean that the rates of change of marine ecosystems outpace existing political and legal boundaries, and might exacerbate disregard for rules-based fishing arrangements.

“We’ve overfished these seas for so long now”

Several fishmongers WikiTribune spoke with at the UK’s largest inland fish market agreed with the notion that a “global fish war is coming,” as expressed by U.S. Coast Guard Captain Allison Caputo.

“We’ve overfished these seas for so long now,” Scott Unwin, 44, owner of Bobby’s Fish Ltd, told WikiTribune. “We’re getting everything, and they’re literally eating everything. You can’t nearly eat some of these things. They’re selling fish, people don’t even know what they are.”

A portrait picture of Scott Unwin, owner of Bobby's Fish Ltd. Source: George Engels/WikiTribune
A portrait picture of Scott Unwin, owner of Bobby’s Fish Ltd. Source: George Engels/WikiTribune

Dodi owner Zaheer Ahmed Dodi, 34, supports the idea of fishing quotas to make the industry more sustainable. He sells mostly “exotic” fish coming from sub-Saharan Africa and South America, which don’t have the same stringent fishing restrictions as in the European Union. He’s not optimistic about the future.

“There won’t be enough fish around. Like African countries, or if you go to Mexico, they don’t have the quota system there, so they just catch whatever they want to,” he told WikiTribune. “I’m struggling at the moment to get enough fish from Africa.”

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