One in 10 Interstate Disputes Are Fishy – And the Implications Stink

One in 10 Interstate Disputes Are Fishy – And the Implications Stink

December 20, 2017 By &

Fisheries are a surprisingly common reason for conflict between countries. Between 1993 and 2010, 11 percent of militarized interstate disputes (MIDs) – conflicts short of war between two sovereign states – involved fisheries, fishers, or fishing vessels. While the conflicts often involve fresh fish, the implications for global peace and prosperity stink like fermented herring. As climate change threatens to change fish habitats, new governance strategies may be needed to prevent these “fishy MIDs” from sparking broader conflicts.

Migrating Fish, Fighting Fishers

The economic logic is simple enough: While markets can deliver fish across borders to consumers, profits from fisheries only accrue to those who physically harvest the fish. Thus, there are strong domestic interests in expanding fishing rights claims and quotas under managed systems. Many fish are migratory, and their migration patterns have no regard for human territorial claims, such as those codified in the UN Law of the Sea. Often, this results in fishers following fish as they swim across territorial boundaries into the waters of other sovereign states.

Fishy MIDs follow a basic template: A country attempts to enforce a maritime boundary that is not recognized (or at least not obeyed) by a rival country’s “foreign” fishing vessels, usually by boarding or firing upon the foreign vessel. Upon interdiction, boarding, or even sinking by the “home” country’s navy or coast guard, the foreign fishing vessels then call on their country’s navy for protection, precipitating a naval standoff. In some cases, navies sink or fire upon fishing vessels flagged to third countries. These conflicts are typically initiated by privately owned vessels, rather than the navies themselves. In addition, these MIDs are distinct from the boat-on-boat violence we’ve seen with illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

These conflicts are prominent in regions of significant geostrategic import. Our map of fishy MIDs that occurred during 1993-2010 shows clusters in the China Sea, the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea, and in Central America – all of which are maritime hotspots for a host of other reasons, including piracy, oil and gas drilling, narco-trafficking, new territorial claims, and geopolitical competition. But fisheries are definitely among them.


These conflicts often involve countries that don’t often find themselves in interstate disputes. For example, the Philippines was involved in 5 percent of all fishy MIDs from 1993-2010, but was involved in only 0.4 percent of MIDs involving all other issues during the same timeframe. Honduras and Nicaragua are involved in fishy MIDs 8-10 times more frequently than they are engaged in other MIDs. Major powers like China and Russia are also involved in a larger share of fishy MIDs than non-fishy MIDs.

Hendrix 2

Global Fish Wars?

These conflicts can escalate, both militarily and diplomatically. James Stavridis, the 16th Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and current dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, has warned that fisheries-related tensions could escalate into a “global fish war.” Already, we see evidence that fisheries-related disputes are causing diplomatic rows and endangering broader economic and diplomatic relationships.

While fish would likely be only one of several issues at the heart of any major escalation, they could spur one of the few “wild card” scenarios in which the navies of competing powers are brought to the brink of engagement by the actions of third parties that they neither command nor control. Under these circumstances, slight miscalculations or misunderstandings may spiral out of control.

Climate change could increase the risk of these conflicts. Just as people may flee increasingly uninhabitable ecosystems, fish will seek to adapt to warming oceans by moving to new environs. Unlike humans, fish don’t carry passports and have no regard for international boundaries. The fishers that depend on them, however, do. As their meal tickets swim across borders, they will be hard pressed not to follow the fish.

At the same time, sea-level rise will change the terrestrial baselines on which territorial sea claims depend, turning land into ocean and complicating the delineation of maritime boundaries. In turn, these boundary disputes could potentially lead to interstate conflicts—as is already occurring among countries with large distant water fishing fleets, like China, Japan, and Russia—and may result in even more countries being caught up in fishy MIDs in the future.

Solving a Fishy Problem

What can be done to mitigate fisheries-related MIDs? While better enforcement of maritime boundaries might help by reducing uncertainty and deterring border crossings, unilateral efforts to pursue such ends are likely to be provocative: The naval assets needed to effectively patrol the South China Sea could also be interpreted as a threatening buildup of offensive capability.

Similarly, treaties may provide a basis for both addressing security concerns and guaranteeing parties’ economic rights, but these treaties can be undone by changes in perceived national interests. Finally, creating coordinated, multinational maritime response teams and sharing information could help prevent “wild card” conflicts, as we’ve seen in efforts to address piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

Climate change, increasing demand for fish from growing populations, and rising military ambitions of regional powers all combine to make future fisheries-related conflict a significant threat to global peace and security. We urgently need new thinking about this fishy problem so we can create institutions and mechanisms for managing these potentially dangerous disputes.

Cullen Hendrix is Associate Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Paige Roberts is Project Officer in the Secure Fisheries program at the One Earth Future Foundation in Broomfield, Colorado. Secure Fisheries combines science-based research with a policy-oriented approach to combat illegal fishing and support sustainable fisheries. Operating primarily in Somalia, Somaliland, and the Lake Victoria region, it serves as a bridge between security efforts at sea and stability and prosperity efforts on land. More information can be found at

Sources: Council on Foreign Relations, Cuenca High Life, Digital Trends, The Diplomat, Insight Crime, Lawfare, The New York Times, Oceans Beyond Piracy, Politics, Reuters, The Telegraph, University of California Davis, The United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, U.S. Energy Information Administration, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington Naval Treaty, The Washington Post, Yale Environment 360

Photo Credit: A fisherman radios in an illegal fishing scenario during Exercise Cutlass Express 2013, a multinational maritime exercise in the waters off East Africa to improve cooperation, tactical expertise and information sharing practices among East Africa maritime forces. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Chad Thompson.

Boost for African coastal states as EU parliament acts to curb illegal fishing

The European parliament has voted overwhelmingly to bring in new rules cracking down on illegal fishing, which could help coastal states in heavily fished African waters confront criminal activity. Thursday’s vote to overhaul Europe’s external fleet legislation could deter commercial operators from encroaching on waters relied upon by local fishing communities. The new measures include a requirement that vessels that have changed flags must show they were not engaged in illegal fishing for the previous two years. Operators that have been sanctioned for serious infringements over the previous 12 months will not be authorised to fish abroad.

“If implemented properly, this kind of legislation could be a strong deterrent for illegal fishing,” says Per Erik Bergh, of Stop Illegal Fishing and Fish-i Africa, which provides monitoring, control and surveillance support to eight east African countries bordering the Indian Ocean. “These are expensive operations, and denying fishing companies the right to fish, even for a year, could put them out of business altogether.”

Said Jama Mohamed, deputy minister of fisheries and marine resources in Somalia, part of the Fish-i Africa network, said: “There are so many vessels in the sea here – it’s full of them. Somalia needs more support to eliminate IUU [illegal, unreported and unregulated] fishing. It’s costing us a lot of money and resources – we need enforcement capacity to catch these illegal vessels.”

Mohamed cited an incident in October when the Somali authorities were initially powerless to stop a Greek-owned trawler fishing along Somalia’s shores, which are reserved for local fishermen. He spotted the 28-metre vessel in a satellite image but it was gone by the time he was able to report it. With no off-shore coastguard to chase away the high-powered industrial trawlers that fish nearby, they are able to slip in and out of Somali waters before disappearing with large amounts of fish, which are then sold to international markets.

Because of the country’s membership of Fish-i, Kenyan port authorities were able to alert their neighbours when the vessel pulled into port, and the owner paid a fine to the Somali authorities. But with vast coastlines unpoliced, even vessels that are caught and fined can resume fishing. Thursday’s reforms are an attempt to tackle this.

Among the measures is article 39, which requires the creation of an electronic register that identifies authorised vessels as well as the name and location of the company owner and beneficial owner. The move has not been welcomed by the fishing industry.“We want this information to be public, but little by little,” says Daniel Voces, policy advisor at the lobbying group Europêche. “We’re talking about business confidentiality, if everyone knows where we fish and who’s getting the money. As a principle we are not opposed, but we need to study how to do it.”

NGOs and environmentalists, however, have applauded moves to improve traceability. “For the first time we will see who benefits from global fishing though a public register,” says MEP Linnéa Engström, vice-chair of the European parliament’s fisheries committee. “This is crucial to stop overfishing and to protect marine ecosystems.”

The parliamentary vote is the first step towards passing legislation. Next month representatives from parliament, the European commission and the European council will meet to agree on a final version. A document obtained by the Guardian, however, suggests the European council will resist some of the bill’s central measures, which could delay legislation for months.

Under article 5, a member state may only authorise an operator or vessel that hasn’t been “subject to a sanction for a serious infringement” – a clause that has been deleted in the “council general approach”, the unofficial position held by the 28 member states. The Council also opposes a key “claw-back” clause, which would allow the commission to revoke authorisations from law-breaking operators that EU states fail to penalise.

“We’ve seen examples of Italian and Lithuanian vessels fishing in west Africa, arrested for illegal fishing, then continuing to fish – and no action was taken by Italy or Lithuania,” says Béatrice Gorez, of the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements.

“So even if you have robust legislation, if member states are able to carry on not doing anything, it won’t change. Hopefully this legislation will provide the European commission with the ability to intervene. We can’t continue saying, ‘The European Union are leaders in terms of sustainability’ whilst allowing some European companies to get away with murder.”

While sustainable fisheries partnership agreements between the EU and coastal states impose strict rules on European vessels, hundreds operate outside these under private agreements with coastal states, many of which are unable or unwilling to impose strict rules.

The idea of the new bill is to put all European vessels on a “level playing field”, as Engström puts it, and subject dubious operators to stricter sanctions at home. “We know that we have a lot of illegal fishing going on, that it’s tied to other criminal activities – that it’s linked to money laundering and tax evasion. Resistance to cleaning up all of these things is huge, because industry has good lobbyists. But this has to stop.”

How China’s trawlers are emptying Guinea’s oceans

Chinese fishing vessels operate illegally off the coast of Guinea, depleting its fish population and destroying marine life. Despite the economic and social consequences of illegal fishing, the Guinean government has failed to police its waters because it doesn’t have money to operate surveillance equipment, as the BBC’s Tamasin Ford reports.

Abdoulaye Soumah looks out to sea as fishermen bring in the day’s catch. Their brightly coloured traditional wooden boats glide into Bonfi port in Conakry, Guinea’s capital, where men wait to load the fish into baskets.

“We used to get between $700 (£540) and $1,400 worth of fish a day,” says the 32-year-old fisherman.

“But now, because of the increase in illegal fishing, there are fewer fish,” he says angrily.

“The same catch will now get around $140 because there’s no fish in the zone we normally fish in.”

The UN estimates that illegal fishing strips the global economy of more than $23bn every year.

And the waters off West Africa have the highest levels of illegal catch in the world, according to the UK-based non-profit organisation, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF),

More than a third of all fish caught in the region is illegal, unreported or unregulated, it says.

“These illegal pirate fishing operators are in effect stealing from some of the poorest people on our planet to provide short-term profit to wealthy fishing operators,” says EJF head Steve Trent.

He explains how a mixture of poor governance, limited resources and corruption create a situation ripe for exploitation. And Guinea is one of the worst examples.

It is the only country in Africa banned from exporting fish to Europe; the world’s biggest market.

Levels of illegal fishing are just too high and the EU says the Guinean government “hasn’t shown the necessary commitment to reforms”.

The most prized fish in Asia

At the fish market in Conakry, Aboubacar Kaba, head of the Artisanal Fisheries Union, grabs a silver fish about the size of his forearm from the back of a refrigerator truck.

“This is the most prized fish in Asia; the yellow croaker,” he says, claiming this is what the illegal trawlers are after.

The fish is now classified as endangered and has reportedly disappeared from Chinese seas because of overfishing.

“In 2008 there were 14 Chinese trawlers in these waters,” he says. “We’re now in 2016 and there are close to 500 trawlers all searching for this species of fish.”

And, according to Greenpeace, many of these companies have a history of illegal fishing in the region.

Hundreds of incidents of illegal activity by Chinese trawlers have been documented in West Africa over the years.

Trawlers took advantage of Ebola

Illegal fishing in Guinea got even worse as the country was battling the deadly Ebola virus, according to a Greenpeace investigation.

“During the Ebola outbreak, the country focused all their resources and capacity to deal with Ebola,” says Ahmed Diame, the Africa Oceans campaigner at Greenpeace.

During a month-long mission at the end of 2014 while Ebola was ravaging the country, a Greenpeace ship spotted an illegal Chinese trawler once every two days.

“In this investigation we discovered that some Chinese vessels fishing in West Africa under-report their gross tonnage and this has many implications of course, including loss of revenue to the state,” says Mr Diame.

Most of the Chinese vessels are known as bottom trawlers; banned in some parts of the world because they are so destructive.

They scrape up everything from the bottom of the ocean, ripping up coral and oyster beds, taking with them everything in their path.

“Up to 90% of the catch can be thrown back into the sea often already dead,” according to Greenpeace.

It means fish stocks are rapidly disappearing from West African waters. But while Guinea managed to officially rid the country of Ebola in June, illegal trawlers are still being spotted.

“This is where we see them, late at night,” says Mr Soumah as he takes me into the artisanal fishing zone on his wooden motorised boat.

The area stretches 12 miles from the shore and is exclusively reserved for artisanal fishing on small boats like these.

Industrial fishing is forbidden in order to protect the fish stocks.

‘I’m scared’

The Environmental Justice Foundation has evidence, yet to be published, that proves illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is still going on in these waters.

Similarly, Greenpeace also started another investigation in January this year across Cape Verde, Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone and Senegal.

It will take three years, but the organisation hopes it will get a more detailed analysis of the situation.

The issue of the lack of resources couldn’t be made clearer as I visit Conakry’s Maritime Authority.

The rear admiral unlocks a door at the back of his office. Members of the navy and maritime surveillance team sit among impressive looking equipment.

This is where they monitor Guinea’s waters.

The problem, says the deputy commissioner, as he shows me some of the brand new kit delivered by the EU, is that they have never been able to use it.

The subscription to the satellite system that drives the equipment costs 10,000 euro ($11,000; £8,500) a year and they just do not have the money.

The government says it is trying but without resources, it is an uphill battle.

Guinea recently signed a treaty to crack down on illegal fishing but it is too early to say what effect it will have.

High hopes rest on Andre Loua, the new minister of fisheries, who was appointed earlier this year.

“Yes, I’m very scared if we don’t halt illegal fishing,” he says frankly.

“The direct consequences of illegal fishing is the destruction of fish stocks and that’s why the government has taken every opportunity to show it’s willing to fight this practice and we are going to keep going until we eradicate illegal fishing in this zone.”

But back on Mr Soumah’s boat at Bonfi port, these feel like empty words.

“The next generation doesn’t stand a chance,” he says bleakly. “Listen, our children survive on what we do.”

Illegal fishing is slowly destroying an already fragile economy here.

Mr Soumah thinks the future of his children is dire.

“Fishing enables us to educate our children, feed them and provide for their healthcare. So if the illegal fishing directly affects us as fishermen, what do you think the impact is on our children?”

Indonesian navy blows up foreign boats for poaching fish

The Indonesian navy has sunk two more boats for illegally fishing in its waters as the country’s new president puts his hard-line anti-poaching policy into practice.
The vessels were captured earlier this month on the sea border of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and have been impounded by the country’s navy since then.
The theft of fish from Indonesian waters is a problem for the maritime nation, which is estimated to lose £15.3bn a year because of the practice.
Indonesia begun to sink foreign ships found illegally fishing in its waters after its new showman centre-left president Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo took office three months ago pledging to crack down on the practice.
It is mainly plagued by vessels flying the flags of Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and China.
“The ships have gone through legal procedures at the court in Ambon and their owners were found guilty of stealing fish from Indonesian waters,” a spokesperson for the country’s navy told local newspaper the Jakarta Post.
“We must sink these ships so that other foreign ships will think twice before fishing illegally in our territory.”
62 crew, all Thai, were arrested in the raid on the vessels, which flew the Papua New Guinean flag. The fishing boats were sunk in a controlled manner by Indonesia’s warships.
The country has previously sunk ships flying the Vietnamese flag. There is some debate in the country as to whether it would sink boats belonging to China, the predominant regional power.
The latest vessels will be the fourth and fifth ships sunk by Indonesia since the new policy came into effect.
Indonesia is believed to have captured more than 150 foreign boats. The country’s president says that around 5,000 ships operate illegally in Indonesian waters every day.

Gradually Gradually, Ghanaian Fishermen lose their livelihoods

More than 75% of fisher folks are likely to lose their livelihoods between now and the next five years as oil and gas activities spread on the coastal waters of Ghana.

Standing on the beautiful sandy beach of Atuabo, the surroundings look clean with green vegetation, the cloud looks foggy as regards to the powerful nature of the sea breeze. On the streets of Atuabo, I can see the idle youth playing cards while others sell coconut to a group of Journalists who were visiting the town to learn on the gas project in the area.

The beach looked calm with some fishermen sailing to shore. At the right from the chief’s palace, the fishmongers gather themselves in preparation to buy some fish from the sailors. The scene looks natural and beautiful. Interestingly three kilometers on my left from the chief’s palace, stands a threat to everybody in Atuabo. The Gas Project and the associated pipelines in Atuabo and Anochie pose a threat to fishermen, famers’ residents in the area. It poses a threat to their livelihoods.

The gas pipelines are being laid directly from the Atuabo Gas plant by CENOPEC OF China through the sea to connect to the Floating Production and Storage Offload vessel (FPSO) to transport natural gas onshore for processing. The completion of the project and commencement of natural gas delivery is likely to lead the indefinite suspension of fishing activities in towns like Atuabo Anochie, Asiamah, Axim, Cape three points, princess town and surrounding communities.

Technical experts have cautioned that the heat that is associated with the transportation of the gas plant through the pipeline is capable f destroying every canoe or vessel that sails within the production area or crosses the pipeline and based on that fishermen will be restricted from the area. Already fishermen and other fishing vessels are not allowed to sail close to the Jubilee Field.

The deputy director in charge of oil and gas at the Environmental Protection Agency,(EPA) Kodjo Agbonome Esinam in a presentation recently with Journalists in Takoradi said the survival of the fishermen in Ghana is very difficult especially with the emergence of the huge vessels in Ghana coupled with the incessant oil and gas activities which is hampering their activities. He said the fishing industry in Ghana started declining sharp in the late 1990s and the measures put in place so far are not yielding good results.

The Deputy Director at the Fisheries Commission has said the Commission has observed with grave concern, a sharp decline in fish production and trade in the country. Madam Doris Yeboah said that Ghana’s aquatic activities have been abused for far too long, and it was high time pragmatic measures were put in place to streamline the operations of fishermen.

Madam Yeboah in an interview disclosed that the Fisheries Commission had established a five-year Fisheries and Aquaculture Development Plan to help solve the multiple challenges facing the sector, and take advantage of opportunities.

She expressed worry that fishing in the coastal areas was hampered by lack of resources and erratic supply of pre-mix fuel. She recounted instances where most fishermen had incurred debts due to lack of training. As part of the plan, the Commission would institute a licensing scheme to regulate fishing activities and help re-generate the country’s aquatic atmosphere.

“At the moment we are not giving fishes the chance to re-produce, fishermen are always mounting pressure on them and always catching and catching, which is not a good practice and must be checked,” she stated. She added that government through the plan, would create an alternative livelihood programme for fishermen who would be affected during the period to enter into other ventures either than fishing. The project is expected help conserve the country’s aquatic system and curb illegal fishing practices such as light fishing.

According to records available at the Fisheries Commission, the fisheries sector of Ghana contributes 4.5% to GDP, employs 10% of Ghanaians directly and indirectly, provides over 65% to animal protein and in fiscal terms contributes $1billion annually.

The sector is divided into marine and inland (fresh) water, with the marine coastal stretch from Half Asini in the Western Region to Aflao in the Volta Region, with over 300 landing beaches and the inland sector mostly constituted of the Volta Lake and other riverine in Ghana.

In the marine sector, there are the Industrial (Trawl and Tuna), Semi-Industrial (inshore) and Marine Artisanal (canoe) whiles the inland sector has mostly artisanal fishing interest with a growing aqua-culture mostly in the Volta Lake.

The fisheries sector is well capitalized with huge investments, for instance with an estimated 12, 000 canoes, at a cost of GhS50,000 and over 200 inshore vessels with an estimated cost of GhS30,000 huge investments in the industrial trawl and tune sectors, one will gape in awe at the levels of investment that has been made in the marine fisheries sector.

Ghana fisheries sector is regulated by laws both local and international aimed at sustainable exploitation of the resource which is a shared resource due to the fact that movement of fish is not restricted to artificial boundaries of countries. Human activities within the marine environment can have pervasive impact on the waters outside the supposed marine territories of the country where the activity takes place. A case in point is the algae bloom that continually creates problems of fishermen in the western Region of Ghana, though the algae bloom is believed to be as a result of industrial activity in La Cote d’voire.

Some of the international laws and policies that guide the marine activities in the world include the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) which also defines marine economic territories and FAO code of responsible fisheries. Beyond the UN itself FAO there is also the International Maritime Organization, International Convention on the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) and many regional and sub-regional bodies working concertedly to protect, the marine environment and the living and non-living things within.

In Ghana, the constitution in article 269 made fisheries a natural resource, in consonance with international practice and established the Fisheries Commission. By the definition of the fisheries as natural resource, fisheries is therefore entrusted in the Presidency and its exploitation, management and protection becomes the responsibility of H.E the President of the Republic through his appointed agents.

Article 269 further mandates parliament to enact a law to establish the functioning structures of the Commission, a law which was enacted in 2002, Act 625 with regulation, Fisheries Regulation 2010 (LI 1968) was passed by parliament in August 2010 and became effective on 3rd August 2010. As part of the collection of the regulatory systems in the industry, the fisheries and aquaculture policy was initiated by the previous government and finalized by the current government.

In compliance to the requirement of the Act 625, the fisheries and aqua-cultural development plan was also developed and consulted on with all major stakeholders by this government and a International Development Agency (IDA) and World Bank facility of US$53.8million had been approved by parliament to implement the 5yrs project.

All this efforts and institutional development is aimed just at ensuring the sustainable exploitation of Ghana’s fisheries resources which must not by the stretch of any imagination be subjected to any form of destruction.