Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

fishing boats in the English Channel
Disputes over access to seafood resulted in clashes in the English Channel in 2018. Photo by Geoff Smith/Alamy Stock Photo

International Fish Fights on the Rise

A new report shows that there is increasing competition between countries for access to seafood.

Authored by

by Chris Baraniuk

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The “mackerel war”—a bitter dispute between several European countries over how much North Atlantic mackerel may be landed every year—has raged for more than a decade. Now there is a “scallop war,” too. Last year, British and French fishing boats rammed each other in the English Channel over the shellfish.

According to a new paper, this is a sign of things to come. With growing frequency, the authors report, fisheries around the world are getting embroiled in conflicts over a precious resource that feeds billions: seafood.

After studying the mackerel war, marine governance researcher Jessica Spijkers at the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden wondered where else flashpoints were occurring. “I realized there just wasn’t any information available globally. Now I know why, it was extremely hard to gather this data,” she explains.

Spijkers and her colleagues collected information about fisheries conflicts based on English-language news reports published worldwide between 1974 and 2016. That data showed a dramatic increase in disputes over fisheries, particularly in the last decade of the study period. The number of altercations cataloged rose from under a dozen per year in the 1970s, to 10 to 40 per year in the 2010s.

The location of conflicts in their data set has also shifted, from North America and Europe to Asia. Since 2000, 43 percent of the international conflicts occurred among Asian countries. Some of those cases have even turned violent. In 2015, for example, an Indian fisherman was shot dead after his trawler entered waters subject to a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan.

Spijkers cautions that the findings present a limited picture because they were drawn exclusively from English-language sources. However, fisheries expert Michael Harte at Oregon State University, who was not involved with the study, says, “this sort of data is the best that we have.” He praises the authors for their efforts: “They’ve done an excellent job in analyzing that data.”

There are several possible reasons for the trend of increasing conflict. Harte points out that the world’s growing population is likely a key driver for increased competition over marine life as a food resource. As demand rises, fishers travel farther afield—to disputed waters or places where they are more likely to encounter rivals. There are also the effects of climate change. A 2018 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations concluded that climate change influenced the mackerel war: warming seas are thought to have pushed mackerel stocks farther north, altering the abundance of mackerel within different countries’ traditional fishing grounds and leading to disagreements over access and quotas.

Spijkers suspects that climate change may be driving other fisheries conflicts, too. That, she says, will be the subject of her next project.

Harte says that he and his fellow researchers are becoming increasingly concerned about the potential for fisheries disputes to escalate, particularly when geopolitical relations between the nations concerned are already strained.

Data-driven evidence like that compiled by Spijkers and her colleagues is very powerful, says Johan Bergenäs, a Washington, DC-based environmental and security expert with the investment firm Vulcan who has written about fisheries conflicts. Quantifying the severity of the global situation can help nations to realize the importance of introducing better stock management measures, he says.

Spijkers and her colleagues say there are ways of avoiding fisheries disputes in the future. For instance, nations can make treaties with one another that strictly define where fishing may be done and how large a catch is permitted. Some agreements already exist, including the Pacific Salmon Treaty between the United States and Canada, but they don’t cover all territories.

Action can’t come too soon, says Bergenäs. “Unless we start to treat fish as the geopolitical challenge that it is,” he says, “we are going to be up against some significant problems over the next few decades.”