455 species of fish are critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature ©123RF
455 species of fish are critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature ©123RF

Are global fish stocks on the brink of collapse?

30 November 2018

New research has highlighted the dire state of global fish stocks. But could this really lead to a third world war?

Forget the cliché – there are no longer plenty more fish in the sea. If present trends continue, global fish stocks will collapse by 2050. The consequent scramble by governments to secure food supplies could, warns Kate Higgins-Bloom, a commander in the US Coast Guard, ignite World War III. Writing for Foreign Policy magazine, she concludes: “However modest their beginnings, the world’s coming conflicts over fish could escalate into protracted, resource-draining disputes.”

The suggestion that World War III may erupt over fish sounds melodramatic, but England and Iceland fought three ‘cod wars’ between 1958 and 1976, which ultimately led the UN to declare that a 200-nautical-mile exclusive fishing zone was the new worldwide standard. (This has not been ratified by the US.)

As Higgins-Bloom notes: “Since the 1990s, China has unilaterally declared large swathes of the South China Sea closed to foreign fishermen for months at a time.” Armed coast guard vessels have enforced such bans. In 2008, a row over Atlantic mackerel, driven north by rising temperatures, prompted Iceland to drop its bid to join the EU.

There are two trends that could provoke a war over fish. The first is population. If, as predicted, the number of humans on Earth reaches 9.8bn by 2050, that will, Higgins-Bloom predicts, increase our need for protein by anything between 32% and 78%. If that happens, she warns: “The supply of both wild and farmed fish will not keep up.” The average annual catch of seafood is around 94m tonnes. Even a boom in fish farms – which generated 63m tonnes in 2011 – will not balance demand and supply.

The second is that fish, having no respect for international borders, are reacting to an ever-changing climate by swimming further in search of hospitable waters. A 2018 paper in the journal Science suggests that dozens of countries will acquire entirely new fish stocks. That sounds encouraging but it is problematic because, as the paper’s lead author Malin Pinsky says: “Sometimes it seems like my three-year-old son is better at sharing than countries with fisheries.” Discontent could be especially acute in the tropics, where people rely on fish for much of their protein.

Many countries have recognised the need to manage the world’s fish stocks but at least 20% of the global catch is harvested from illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. (Other analysts put that figure closer to 50%.) Percentages keep mounting; ships that, critics say, act as bulldozers, trawling the bottom of the sea and damaging marine eco-systems, now catch a quarter of the world’s fish. A new study published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found such practices become unsustainable when more than 20% of a seabed is trawled.

Over-fishing has wrecked the economic model that has supported communities for centuries. In central America, desperate fishermen have tried to support their families by working for drug cartels or poaching.

China has the world’s largest distant-water fishing fleet, with 2,500 vessels, and has been accused of IUU fishing on an industrial scale.

People are already being killed at sea over fishing rights. Pinsky says: “Even when there is enough fish to go around, we’ve seen that countries can’t cooperate. This often leads to competitive fishing – a race to catch the fish when they’re there. With climate change, there is a risk that future disputes lead to less fish, less profit, less employment and more worry about food supplies.”

The solutions are obvious, but difficult. Politically, this is not a good moment to argue for global cooperation or the enforcement of rulings by international courts. In the UK, where fishing is a £1bn industry, Brexit clouds the future. The list of ingredients on a packet of ‘British made’ deep frozen battered fish fingers show that the cod has been sourced from Iceland, China, Russia, Norway, Germany, Poland and Denmark. That illustrates how difficult it may be for British companies to define where fish originated – as EU/EFTA rules require – and how globalised the industry’s supply chain has become.

That said, governments have taken one constructive step: in October 2018, the EU, US, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, South Korea, Japan and China agreed to ban fishing in much of the Arctic until 2034.

Likely flashpoints for conflict include the Paik Straits, between India and Sri Lanka; North Korea, where Chinese fishing boats are regularly seized and ransomed; the South China Sea, where Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam and China are embroiled in ‘gunboat diplomacy’; and Indonesia, which blows up foreign ships fishing in its waters. As an indication of how dramatically such disputes can escalate, a ruling by an international tribunal against China’s claim to own the South China Sea provoked thousands of outraged Chinese citizens to post videos of themselves smashing iPhones (on the grounds that the smartphone epitomised the US which was deemed to be behind the decision). As Pinsky says: “Conflicts that start out being about fish may not stay that way.”  

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