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Fish Wars

Image via South China Morning Post

On June 9, 2019, a Chinese vessel rammed into a Philippine fishing boat in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea before fleeing the scene. The Chinese government identified the vessel, Yuemaobinyu 42212, as a fishing boat, but further analysis strongly suggests that it is connected to the country’s official maritime militia. The ramming is, unfortunately, not a standalone incident. In fact, it represents a much larger security threat.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a pervasive threat to conservation efforts and vulnerable coastal communities. However, the risks go further than food and economic security: IUU fishing is an increasingly geopolitical security concern. The outsized activity of distant water fishing fleets in foreign waters—along with growing competition over resources due to a dwindling fish population—means that there will be substantially more conflict over fisheries. 

Fishery conflict is not a new threat, but its unusual projected increase in the next few years is a cause for urgency. Significantly, the effects of climate change are set to dramatically change the fishing seascape. Rising ocean temperatures are causing fish stocks to migrate and certain ocean ecosystems to deteriorate. This will lead to major disruptions in the global economy, as newly fish-poor communities are threatened with food scarcity and internal instability, while newly fish-rich areas will confront competition for fish for the first time. Both types of disruption will bring their own heightened risk of conflict. Yet, despite the grave security implications this problem creates, the international community, and specifically the United States as a maritime superpower, is not doing enough to take preventative action. In order to mitigate the risk of fishery conflict, the US must rethink and reinvigorate its strategy to combat IUU fishing in the places where climate change has dictated it will matter the most. 

Let’s zoom in on one of the world’s richest and most profitable fishing grounds: the Horn of Africa. Along Somalia’s 3,300-kilometer coastline, which was declared an EEZ in 1972, local fishermen caught about 6,000 metric tons of fish in 2022 alone. As Somalia seeks to jumpstart its war-ravaged economy, it is looking to its nascent “blue economy” in a bid for stability after over 30 years of civil war. However, while the vastness of its 838,058 square-kilometer EEZ has incredible potential to mitigate food insecurity challenges and bolster the national economy, its waters have also attracted foreign long-distance fishing fleets, costing Somalia an estimated $450 million each year. 

As the dynamic between increasingly militarized foreign fishers and frustrated Somali coastal communities that depend on fish has become more strained, incidents between international and domestic fishers have become more frequent. According to Oceans Futures, a 2023 data initiative that analyzes and predicts future fishing conflict hotspots, the climate change-induced fish stock decline, compounded with uncontrolled fishing competition, puts the Horn of Africa at the highest risk for fishery conflict.

The Horn of Africa is not the only place where the threat of fishing conflicts looms large. Oceans Futures identifies over 20 high-risk hotspots, including the Arctic, Ecuador, the Western Central Pacific, West Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, and many more. This is a major international security threat of today’s era of climate change, yet it is flying under the radar of US foreign policy and security. 

Unfortunately, there are numerous challenges in implementing a comprehensive solution to IUU fishing. Its widespread nature means that no one actor or agency can unilaterally address it. While international armed conflict over fisheries is inherently a maritime security threat, IUU fishing is considered a law enforcement issue by most countries, including the United States, rather than a military one. Ideally, local law enforcement agencies would enforce environmental conservation agreements in their respective EEZs, but they often fail to do so due to institutional instability, lack of resources, and insufficient maritime domain awareness (MDA), among other reasons—the same weaknesses that embolden IUU fishing in the first place. 

Directing international bodies, US-led and otherwise, on this issue can be just as complicated.The US Navy has the capability and influence, with over 300,000 active personnel and a proposed budget of over $200 billion, but it does not have law enforcement authority. While the US Coast Guard does have law enforcement authority and has become increasingly global, its capacity and reach are nowhere near those of the Navy. Environmental NGOs have the existing knowledge and systems, but ultimately require the government to take action. This, more than ever, is a moment for strategic cooperation.

For US foreign policy on IUU fishing, coalition-building starts with the Navy and strategy starts with the Coast Guard. The US Navy has immense convening power due to its global presence and influence. It must be the beginning of any serious attempt to build the international coalition that fishery conflict mitigation necessitates. While IUU fishing is not traditional military work, the Navy can begin by creating new partnerships and strengthening existing ones with countries that are at the highest risk of fishery conflict. This can and has been done: In 2022, law enforcement agencies in Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Cabo Verde operated off a US seabase to combat IUU fishing and drug trafficking operations, and their success shows the potential of international maritime cooperation. But, there need to be permanent bilateral law enforcement partnerships on a much larger scale and all over the world. 

While the US Navy is the starting point of a serious anti-IUU coalition, the Coast Guard brings the most expertise to combating IUU fishing given its over 150 years of institutional experience and knowledge in maritime law enforcement. As with the Navy, there is precedent for an international partnership—in 2020, the US Coast Guard worked with Palau’s maritime law enforcement authority to board an illegal Chinese fishing vessel. Though such initiatives help, they must be much more ambitious in scope if the US hopes to assist vulnerable coastal states who request support in their efforts to combat IUU fishing in their EEZs. Shockingly, not once in the US Coast Guard’s IUU Fishing Strategic Outlook or the National 5-Year Strategy for Combating IUU Fishing were climate change or global warming mentioned. As IUU fishing and climate change threaten to compound the risks of international armed fishery conflict to new and dangerous heights, there is not enough awareness of what the future of our oceans will look like at the policy and law enforcement level. 

This is where the environmental non-governmental sector comes in. Organizations like Oceans Future can provide comprehensive predictive analysis of conflict hotspots and enhance maritime domain awareness of law enforcement as the climate changes. NGOs bring innovative environmental expertise to the coalition, and it is their strategic foresight that will allow the United States to handle fishery conflict preemptively.

It should be noted that, in terms of strategy and policy, we are not starting from zero. IUU fishing has garnered more attention in recent years with the 2019 Maritime Security and Fisheries Enforcement (SAFE) Act and the 2022-2026 National 5-Year Strategy for Combating IUU Fishing. However, there is not enough funding for these programs and much more innovation is needed for sustainable mitigation. 

“In eight years, 1 in 4 fish will go from one exclusive economic zone to another,” states Johan Bergenas, the Senior Vice President for Oceans at the World Wildlife Fund. “That means there’s going to be food winners and food losers.” History has taught us that when there are winners and losers, especially over resource competition, violence often follows. Fish wars, however, are avoidable if hotspots are identified early and preventative action is taken. It is the responsibility of the international community to prevent war before it starts, and the United States can play a crucial role in the greater global effort. A coalition between the US Navy, US Coast Guard, international partners, and NGOs can be the beginning of a collaborative effort to curb IUU fishing and mitigate the risk of conflict in the world’s most vulnerable regions. This effort has to begin now, because if it does not, international armed conflict over fish migration may soon become a pervasive reality.