Why the next big battle may not be fought over treasure or territory—but for fish.
Humans have always depended on the sea. For as long as there have been fishermen, there have been conflicts over fish. And though it may seem anachronistic, the odds that a squabble over fishing rights could turn into a major armed conflict are rising. The return of great-power competition has actually increased the likelihood of a war over fish. The past 17 years of the fight against terrorism, and Washington’s renewed focus on developing high-end capabilities to prepare for great-power conflict, have led to a lack of preparation for a low-end, seemingly mundane but increasingly likely source of conflict in the world: food.
As incomes rise around the world, so too does the demand for food—especially protein. The United Nations currently estimates that between mid-2017 and 2050, the number of humans on Earth will rise by 29 percent, from 7.6 billion to 9.8 billion. Most of that population growth will occur in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—areas where millions of people have recently risen from deep poverty to the middle class. Part of a middle-class lifestyle is a middle-class diet, which includes far more protein than poor people consume. As a result of that shift, the global demand for protein will outpace population growth, increasing between 32 and 78 percent, according to some estimates. Meeting that demand could require an additional 62 to 159 million metric tons of protein per year. To maintain political support at home, leaders must ensure access to the high-quality food that is part of a middle-class lifestyle.
The supply of both wild and farmed fish will not keep up. The current annual global catch of seafood is 94 million metric tons. And all around the world, the wild populations of both migratory fish, such as tuna, and less mobile species, such as flounder, are being overfished. Scarcity has already forced Chinese fishing fleets further and further afield in search of their catch. Serious international efforts to manage the world’s wild fisheries are underway, but this work is stymied by widespread illegal, unreported, and unregulated (or IUU) fishing. Today, such harvests comprise somewhere from 20 to 50 percent of the global catch and inflict economic, social, and environmental damage on some of the world’s most vulnerable populations as fisheries collapse from overfishing and poor and rural fishing communities wrestle with the subsequent loss of income and, eventually, their social fabric. The classic example of this is fishermen in Central America turning to drug cartels for employment or poaching from closed fisheries, feeding the cycle of violence and environmental damage.
The political leaders of rising powers will feel enormous pressure to secure the resources their citizens demand—even if it means violating international norms and rules. This pressure could sow the seeds of potential conflict in two distinct ways. The first is that some states will overplay their hand when using fishing fleets and fisheries enforcement to exert influence in contested waters. The second is that illegal fishing, driven by exploding domestic demand and collapsing supply, will be met with increasingly aggressive enforcement by America or its allies—which could quickly escalate and spill over into actual conflict.
The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, commonly referred to as UNCLOS, is the foundational document for all maritime territorial claims; more than 150 countries, but not the United States, have already ratified the treaty. According to UNCLOS, a state can exclusively claim any resource, including fish, within 200 nautical miles of the base lines of the habitable landmasses it controls. Such areas are called exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Each state is responsible for managing its own fisheries within its EEZ. But beyond these exclusive zones, regulation of fishing and activity on the high seas is managed by more than 20 international and regional bodies, with widely varied mandates and resources. Enforcement is carried out by a patchwork of agencies and coalitions around the world, ad hoc partnerships, and bilateral agreements among nations. If that arrangement sounds ripe for
dispute, it is.
There are dozens of contested maritime claims around the world, including one between Canada and the United States over two small islands off the coast of New Brunswick. Currently, the most consequential of these contested waters are the South and East China seas, where China has made outsized claims—accompanied by naval patrols and an island-building campaign. Beijing hopes to legitimate its territorial claims by establishing and expanding its physical presence in these areas. Fishing vessels represent an ideal way to create that presence—without provoking a military response—since they are notionally nongovernmental and thus give their country of origin some plausible deniability. They are also cheap compared with military vessels and are more mobile and scalable than fixed structures such as oil platforms (let alone man-made islands).
For years, China has subsidized and provided armed escorts for forays by its fishing fleet into its neighbors’ EEZs and assertively enforced Chinese law on non-Chinese fishermen operating in contested waters. Since the 1990s, China has unilaterally declared large swaths of the South China Sea closed to fishermen for months at a time. This closure is enforced by armed China Coast Guard vessels, which have been involved in a series of violent confrontations with foreign fishermen. This heavy-handed approach would be relatively unremarkable if the closed area was actually recognized Chinese territory. In this case, however, China is acting in international water or in the EEZs of other countries. The situation is roughly analogous to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service using deadly force to stop Canadian deer hunters from shooting a doe out of season in Vancouver.
China Coast Guard and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy vessels also appear to have stepped up escorts of Chinese-flagged fishing fleets as they venture into fishing grounds, particularly those around a set of contested islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. The Japan Coast Guard has responded by increasing its own presence in the area. Should a China Coast Guard or PLA Navy vessel fire on a Japan Coast Guard ship, supposedly in defense of a Chinese fishing fleet, the Japanese would likely retaliate, and both sides could easily escalate.
There are other ways that fish can trigger war. Crackdowns on illegal and unregulated fishing already routinely threaten to spiral into violence.
China currently consumes a third of the global fish catch. Officials there have made it clear that they believe that meeting the expectations of their increasingly affluent population is key to preserving political stability—and thus is a core national security interest. But despite participating in the international bodies dedicated to improving fisheries regulation and maritime governance, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace estimates that China has the world’s largest distant-water fishing fleet, with more than 2,500 vessels, and has been accused of industrial-scale IUU fishing in waters as far away as those off the coast of Senegal and Argentina, where China cannot even pretend to have territorial claims.
Cases that involve sincerely held fishing rights also risk triggering violent conflicts. Consider a hypothetical—but plausible—example in which Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro trades his country’s fishing rights to China, as other impoverished countries have done, to cover part of Venezuela’s $60 billion in outstanding debts. China would then have legal claim to Venezuelan waters, some of which could be contested given Venezuela’s history of border disputes with Guyana and Colombia. If Beijing continues to expand the practice of escorting its fishing fleet with armed China Coast Guard vessels, the chances for a violent exchange would continue to rise—as would the risk of the United States becoming involved.
Future resource scarcity could also trigger a fish-related conflict. If global fish stocks collapse around 2050, as current trends suggest they will, national governments are going to feel intense pressure to ensure a regular food supply for their populations. This pressure could lead more powerful countries to try to grab the resources of smaller or vulnerable neighbors.
Russia and the United States might also be tempted to establish claims against one another in the waters that separate Alaska and Siberia. The U.S. Coast Guard has conducted patrols in the Bering Sea since 1867, the year of the Alaska Purchase. (In 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze signed an agreement to establish a maritime boundary line between the USSR and the United States. The U.S. Senate ratified the agreement, but neither the leaders of the collapsing Soviet Union nor their Russian successors followed suit.) As pressure on fisheries increases, Russian leaders may decide that it is time to challenge the de facto border outright. The opening of the Arctic, combined with Russia’s significantly larger Arctic-capable fleet and infrastructure, would enable Moscow to mount a credible challenge to U.S. control of one of its richest fisheries.
The news isn’t all grim. Fish farming has exploded from producing 5 million metric tons in 1981 to 63 million metric tons in 2011. Even though naysayers point out that fish farms are highly vulnerable to the spread of diseases, and environmental advocacy organizations are worried about their ecological impact, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that by 2030, farmed fish will make up more than 60 percent of seafood bound for homes and restaurants. Meanwhile, in 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama established an interagency task force to combat IUU fishing, co-chaired by the secretaries of commerce and state, with the participation of 14 federal agencies. The task force not only survived the change in administration, but it also released a comprehensive action plan in December 2017. Meanwhile, China, perhaps recognizing the potential for international pushback, has included language in its 13th Five-Year Plan that indicates a willingness to consider fisheries reform.
These measures will help, but they’re not enough. Governments around the world must take further steps to prevent a fish war. First and foremost, the United States must reinforce its commitment to the international rules-based order that has governed the maritime domain for decades. It should do so by vigorously upholding rulings by the IMO, agitating for increased transparency and accountability for states that license merchant ships at the WTO, challenging excessive maritime claims around the world, and finally ratifying UNCLOS. To follow through on these commitments, the United States and its partners should also strengthen their own coast guard forces, continue to build partner capacity across the Indo-Pacific, and invest in science, data collection, and information sharing.
Doing all of the above wouldn’t be cheap. But the investment would be worth it. The U.S. fishing industry is a powerful economic engine in need of defense, which generates $208 billion in annual sales and employs 1.6 million people. And the costs saved by avoiding a war over fish would be even higher.
Unfortunately, President Donald Trump’s June executive order on ocean policy did not seem to take such concerns into account when it reset U.S. priorities away from conservation and focused on security on the high seas. One cannot exist without the other.
A crowded and hungry world means that battles over resources are a real possibility. The initial skirmishes will occur between relatively small ships within eyeshot of each other. But however modest their beginnings, the world’s coming conflicts over fish have the potential to escalate into protracted, resource-draining disputes.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.