We’re fighting over fish.
Iceland and the U.K. fought over water territories during, what was coined, the Cod Wars. More recently, European fishermen in the English Channel crashed their ships into one another over disputes of national fishing rights. These attacks were not driven by unreasonable motives; rather, they reflect the absurdly high 90% of global fishing stocks that are either overexploited or depleted. Developed countries and their inhabitants are swinging fists at one another over maritime territories and the dwindling supply of fish, but developing nations with little political and economic clout face the deepest damage from overfishing.
A number of low-income economies are fueled by the fishing industry. Sixty million people are employed by fisheries, which are mostly residents of developing countries. Fish is also a highly accessible, protein-rich food, providing about 50% of protein intake and offering social security for locals in some of the least developed countries.
As fish supplies are absorbed and small-scale fisheries are crowded out by larger ones, food security along coastal regions of developing countries becomes a significant problem. For people with limited access to capital, fishing acts as a social safety net. They can turn to fishing to achieve self-sustainability without reliance on markets to attain food. Limited fish supplies erase this social protection. Furthermore, fishing generates income and enables breadwinners to put food on the table, but African countries are losing billions to foreign states from potential fishing sales. Islands in the Pacific reap only six percent of the $3 billion value of total regional catches, the majority of which are siphoned to foreign nations. Locals of developing countries are losing potential gains of capital and are becoming increasingly food-insecure because of rivaled consumption over fishing supplies. But these issues are minute compared to the larger, macro-level ones they feed into.
Firstly, food insecurity, as an outcome of overfishing, can spark conflict. The Syrian civil war, for example, is believed to have been caused by food insecurity. Today, the Bay of Bengal is reaching its own tipping point. Once a place of refuge for victims of droughts inland of India, the Bay is now running dry of its fish that locals rely on and will likely see rising food prices. Riots and protests are strongly associated with surges in food costs, and historical patterns exhibiting this relationship would not exempt the Bay of Bengal from similar outcomes. Secondly, overfishing squeezes residents out of coastal regions and into cities in search of new job opportunities, accelerating issues that arise from rapid urbanization. African countries, in particular, face many of these challenges and are unable to accomodate the surge of population growth. Ninety percent of South Sudan’s urban population, for example, lives in slums due to insufficient urban planning by the government. Contrary to popular belief, urbanization does not always correlate significantly with poverty alleviation, and fishermen cast out from their jobs may face disappointing prospects in cities.
These cascading issues stem from developed countries that overfish and turn to unexploited waters for fish supplies. Current international law insufficiently protects fish populations and threatens the rights of coastal inhabitants in low-income countries. A 1982 United Nations treaty, for example, allocates fishing rights to countries for 200 miles off their coasts, but a number of low-income countries have surrendered their rights through bilateral deals. The European Union bought access to coastal waters in more than a dozen African countries, and though opening a source of government revenue, these purchases question the distributional efficiency of the funds by the recipient state. Just beyond these protected areas, the high seas are a free-for-all, enabling fishing fleets to rob nearby waters of fish migrating to and from the shores. Developed countries continue to allocate massive subsidies to fishing fleets to meet growing domestic demands for fish. Hundreds of millions of dollars are channeled to fishing fleets by the Chinese government, for example, and with a recent decline of squid stock in Asia, Chinese ships are increasingly seen in far-off waters near Peru and Argentina.
Intergovernmental organizations have been slow to respond to these behaviors of high-income countries given that developed nations possess majority influence within global institutions. In fact, negotiations on fishing subsidies have been on the World Trade Organization’s agenda for about two decades now, despite upcoming deadlines to eliminate fishing subsidies under the 2020 Sustainable Development Goals.
Developing nations must act to secure their fishing industries to encourage domestic employment and exports of fish. In an ideal world, institutions could be improved to effectively monitor fishing and law enforcement, but many countries lack the resources for substantial developments. Still, developing nations must not settle — fishing fleets of developed countries, if they want access to particular waters, should abide by set requisites. Instead of leasing coastal waters, and by requiring foreign vessels to be based in the host country as foreign enterprises, developing countries could establish standards of employment and monitor catches more closely. Additionally, developed nations must realize their stake in this issue and be cognizant of the consequences of depleting fishing stocks and food insecurity, such as security and humanitarian concerns associated with mass migration and refugee crises. For the sake of developing countries, and in the end, developed countries, fishing challenges will need to be swiftly addressed.