Until the mid 20th century, the ocean was a key terrain of conflict between competing colonial powers seeking to expand their control over territories and natural resources.Today, the ocean is again a renewed place of conflict. This time it is a battle between small-scale subsistence fishermen and the governments and industrial fishing companies to whom their traditional fishing rights have been given away.
These battles, raging from Canada to Chile to Scotland to Taiwan, are the newest round of global resource wars.
Late last year a fish war broke out when Italian fishing boats surrounded and shot out portholes of a Croatian fishing vessel landing their catch at an Italian port. The armed assault was retribution for the Croatian government setting up a “no go” area for foreign vessels, which can dwarf local subsistence vessels and wipe out local fisheries in a matter of years.
These fish wars are flaring out of control. In just the past few months the Sri Lankan Navy has attacked Indian fishing vessels, strikes have rocked India, local subsistence fishermen in the Philippines protested the loss of their traditional access rights to foreign vessels, angry clashes have broken out in Chile and Taiwan, a mutiny hit Papua New Guinea, and Australia has seized and burned illegal fishing vessels.
Just below the surface, a cold war is emerging as well. Environmental, recreational and industrial fishing groups have filed countless lawsuits over fishing in the United States. Anger has erupted over the European Union’s sweeping changes in its fisheries policies, and a trade war has erupted between the United States and Thailand and Vietnam over America’s higher tariffs on imported farmed shrimp.
Long left vulnerable to the vestiges of the global market, the world’s fisheries are being rapidly depleted. New developments in industrial fishing over the last few decades have led to a rapid oversupply of super-sized vessels plundering the ocean. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, about 70 percent of our global fisheries are now being fished close to, are already at, or are beyond their capacity.
Flush with subsidies, the growing global industrial fishing fleet is rapidly outstripping the supply of fish. Scientists recently warned that large predatory fish species have been depleted by as much as 99 percent in the past century.
The first to suffer the consequences of the global plunder are ocean wildlife and local subsistence fishermen. “Dirty” fishing gear like longlines – monofilament lines stretching up to 60 miles and baited with thousands of hooks – catch and kill large numbers of non-target catch.
A recent report estimates that longlines catch and kill an estimated 4.4 million sharks, sea turtles, seabirds, billfish and marine mammals in the Pacific each year. Scientists warn that the endangered Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle, often a victim of longlines, could go extinct in the next five to 30 years unless the technique is eliminated.
Environmentalists and small-scale fishing people have responded with protests, lawsuits and extensive campaigns for reform. Likewise, the recreational fishing industry, itself worth many times more than revenues from industrial fishing, has responded in kind.
Pressed for export revenues to repay mounting debts, developing countries push local subsistence fishing communities out of waters that have sustained their families and local communities for centuries. Access to these waters are then leased to foreign industrial vessels that rapidly deplete the fisheries and move on. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer tourists decide to visit what were once pristine ocean wonderlands.
As Jean Ziegler, a U.N. expert on the right to food, said in a recent report to the Geneva-based U.N. Commission on Human Rights, “In the drive to industrialize, privatize and orient fish production towards exports, poor fishing and fish-farming communities are often left behind.”
The consequences are not surprising. Job losses are mounting among coastal fishing communities already hit hard by erosion and climate change. As foreign vessels export fish once destined for local markets, local prices have shot up at the same time global prices have collapsed.
Despite the explosion of conflicts across the globe, the fish wars have yet to make the spotlight. Most resource wars receiving coverage pertain to terrestrial battles over forests, oil and ground water.
Hopefully, this is all about to change. Faced with calls for moratoriums on destructive fishing such as industrial longlines, the U.N. has called for prohibitions of destructive fishing techniques.
Let’s hope the United Nations and its member nations will do more than talk. The survival of the ocean, and the people that depend on it for their survival, are at risk.
Robert Ovetz, Ph.D is the Save the Leatherback Campaign Coordinator with the U.S.-based Sea Turtle Restoration Project which is calling for a moratorium on in