Climate Change May Spark Global 'Fish Wars'

Jun 19, 2018, 09:30 PM

ATLANTIC MACKEREL, A fatty schooling fish, for years has been caught by fleets in parts of Europe and sold around the world—where it gets pickled, grilled, smoked, and fried. It is among the United Kingdom's key exports. But a decade ago, warming temperatures began driving this popular fish north, into seas controlled by Iceland. Almost overnight, this seafood gold began shredding relations between some of the world's most stable governments. It led to unsustainable fishing, trade embargoes, and boat blockades. It even helped convince Iceland to drop its bid to join the EU. And that was among friendly nations. Welcome to the climate-change food threat you may not have considered. In many parts of the world overfishing is already draining the ocean of important sea life. But a paper published today in the journal Science suggests potentially explosive ocean fish wars are likely to simmer across the world as warming temperatures drive commercial fish species poleward into territories controlled by other nations, setting up conflicts with sometimes hostile neighbors that are suddenly forced to share. That could lead to far fewer fish, economic declines and, in some areas, serious threats to food security. "I've got a 3-year-old son, and sometimes it seems like he's better at sharing than countries are with fisheries," says lead author Malin Pinsky, an assistant professor of biology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. In parts of the world conflicts over ocean fishing are "already rampant. It's been brewing under the surface," says Jessica Spijkers, a sustainability researcher with the Stockholm Resilience Center and co-author of the study. "People have died at sea because fishing boats are out where other boat operators didn't think they should be." Warming waters threaten to make that worse, the authors say. Dozens of countries, thanks to climate change, can expect to see entirely new fisheries develop by mid-century, the new study suggests, with that number jumping to 70 or more nations by century's end. By then, many countries could draw nearly a third or more of their national catch from fish stocks that didn't exist in their waters just a few decades earlier. In parts of the world where governments are volatile and protein from the sea is essential, this is likely to set up conflicts that could escalate into violence or actual wars that threaten national sovereignty. In parts of East Asia, where international relations already are fraught because of disputed maritime boundaries and illegal fishing, scientists predict some countries could see 10 major new fisheries for species or stocks once exclusively managed by other countries. Most countries control fishing or have agreements to share rights within a 200-mile exclusive economic zone around their coasts. But fish, of course, don't care about political boundaries, and when they cross borders tempers can run hot. In the 1990s, after agreements to share West Coast fish collapsed, the United States and Canada faced a standoff over salmon. Canada accused Americans of overfishing and seized boats fishing in Canadian waters. The governor of Alaska accused its neighbor of resorting to "gunboat diplomacy." Canada, in turn, threatened to overfish its own rivers to keep American boats from nabbing the harvest. New England saw similar battles between the two countries over lobster. But now climate change has hundreds of species around the world moving toward the poles in search of colder waters, sometimes by hundreds of miles. And fishing rules and regulations simply cannot keep up. Longline catches of blueline tilefish, a lean and meaty species common in the southeast U.S., had been managed for years by federal regulators with rules that stretched only as far north as Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. But a few years ago, officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service were alarmed to discover the tilefish were being caught in mass as far north as Long Island—where there were n...