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As has happened with other natural resources such as oil, the international fishing industry is profitable, competitive and a source of conflict between countries.
In the last decades, the demand for fish has doubled: in the 60s the world consumed a little less than 10 kilos of fish per capita per year, while in 2016, consumption increased to 20.3 kilos per person, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Some experts warn that competition between countries has intensified and may lead to a global fishing war. “Countries are taking drastic measures to protect their fish,” says Johan Bergenas, director of public policy specializing in defence and environment at Vulcan, a US organization led by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen…
“Unfortunately, the dynamics around the fishing industry is ideal for an armed conflict,” he says. The zones with greater conflicts are in the south and the Asian northeast; the coasts of Central America and South America; and in African waters, adds the expert.
Until now, major conflicts have involved vessels from China, the largest exporter of fish in the world and whose population consumes more than twice the average in other countries. “The Chinese authorities consider that fishing vessels are important tools to expand the country’s maritime presence in disputed waters,” says Zhang Hongzhou, a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. In addition, they deliver subsidies estimated at US $3,000 million per year to their fishing fleets.
In an analysis that is part of a project with the Wilson Center study center, Johan Bergenas raises 5 reasons that, in his opinion, show that a fishing war is approaching :
A concentrated offer
“The Pacific could become the Middle East of tuna “, making a parallel with the competition for oil. That’s because 60% of the world’s tuna is caught in a single geographical region: the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. The rest of the species are also concentrated in specific areas, which makes them a source of permanent conflict.
An investigation by Global Fishing Watch, published in the journal Science this year, revealed that only 5 countries account for 85% of fishing in the high seas, that is, far from their exclusive economic zones: China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan and Korea from the south.
A tool of political power
The concentration in the Pacific of tuna has made the sovereignty of these waters extremely valuable. Overfishing and disputes over fishing rights are common in these waters, which are full of small island-states. On the other hand, China, the country most dependent on fishing in the world, “uses its fishing fleet as the third arm of its Navy,” according to the Department of Defense of the United States. In its annual report to Congress in 2017, the Pentagon noted that ” China is building a state fishing fleet for its maritime militia in the South China Sea.” Beijing said last year that its sovereignty on disputed islands in that area is “irrefutable.”
A finite resource
The fishing production will not reach to cover the demand in seven more years. In parallel, external forces such as climate change are also putting pressure on the resource. Although aquaculture can help meet the growing demand, it is not enough.
A fundamental commodity
Currently, 1 billion people depend on fishing to meet their nutritional needs, and this number will grow as the population increases. Fish is one of the best-selling food resources in the world. FAO projects that the demand for fish could increase by 21% by the year 2025.
On the other hand, fishing boats are used by organizations to move illegal goods. For example, in 2016, the US Navy He confiscated weapons on small fishing boats in the Arabian Sea that was transported from Iran to Yemen. And the US Coast Guard recently confiscated more than 7,000 kilos of cocaine worth about US $ 260 million that were transported along the coasts of South and Central America.
Conflicts in Latin America
Due to its growing domestic demand, China has arrived in Latin America in search of products such as giant squid or cod inArgentine waters; the tuna in Chile’s; the shark in those of Colombia and Ecuador; the totoaba in those of Mexico. There are Chinese boats that work legally, but others do not. For example, in 2016, the case of an Argentine coastguard vessel that sank a Chinese fishing vessel that was fishing within its zone of economic exclusion (200 miles from the coast) was emblematic. And that same year, China rejected Mexico’s complaint about fishing and trade in totoaba, a Mexican species at risk of extinction that lives in the upper Gulf of California.
The presence of Chinese vessels has caused conflicts in waters off West Africa, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines. What is not known is the dimension that these incidents could reach in the future. And until now, there has not been a diplomatic conflict of great proportions between powers that calls into question the stability of international relations. While some analysts such as Bergenas think that this is a matter of time, others are more cautious and trust that the diplomatic solution of the conflicts will manage to control the tensions.
A growing illicit economy
“Illegal, unregulated and unregulated fishing has an estimated value of US $ 36,000 million a year, equivalent to 25% of the legal market,” Bergenas points out. In addition, “there are criminal organizations that exploit the resource to finance illegal activities”, as is the case of totoaba fish, trafficked by drug cartels in Mexico.