Why is the world increasingly fighting over fish?

Global tension grows over fishing, a source of conflict that many now compare to that of oil

5 min
Repairing a boat in the port of Saint Louis, Senegal

BarcelonaAlbert Camus said that wars are too stupid to last, but they always end up lasting because stupidity insists and wins. Throughout history, humanity has seen conflicts of all types and in almost every corner of the planet. However, probably one of the most bizarre ones took place during the second half of the 20th century between Iceland and the United Kingdom. The reason for the dispute was cod. On three occasions (in 1958, in 1972 and in 1975), Reykjavik and London clashed over the rights to catch this fish in the waters of the North Atlantic. Only one death was recorded - that of an Icelandic engineer in 1973 - but there were countless violent skirmishes that left iconic images, such as a British navy ship intentionally crashing into an Icelandic navy ship.

Decades later, the UK has once again become embroiled in a dispute over fish. Now with France. For months, Paris and London have been fighting over fishing quotas in the English Channel, the part of the Atlantic that separates French soil from British soil: Emmanuel Macron claims that, following Brexit, Boris Johnson has limited access to British waters where, traditionally, French sailors have fished. The United Kingdom denies this and the two governments have become entangled in a spiral of threats that is shaking their relations.

However, neither the cod wars - as the English media dubbed them at the time - nor the current war over scallops - the product most fished by the French in British waters - are more absurd than the others. Fishing is a question of economics, but also of politics, strategy and national pride. If we look up, we will see that in several points of the global map a kind of geopolitics of fish is consolidating: more and more governments are confronting each other over the sovereignty of fishing waters. The World Economic Forum has long warned that fishing is a potential and dangerous source of conflict, comparable only to the oil disputes of recent decades.

And there is a big problem. It is true that technically fish is a renewable resource, but the insatiable overexploitation of the waters of recent times, coupled with the effects of the climate crisis, draws a future with fewer and fewer fish in the sea. According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), between 1988 and 2018 their population has decreased by 41%. Another report by the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, stressed that 90% of fish stocks are overexploited. On the other hand, consumption and demand continue to grow.

A combination of several factors - from technological advances to, above all, rising incomes around the world, which have made fish a more accessible product - explain why global fish consumption has increased by 122% between 1990 and 2018. In other words, if in 1961 each person ate an average of 9 kilos of fish per year, in 2018 this annual amount was 20.5 kilos. Between now and 2025, fish production, driven mainly by aquaculture, is expected to increase by 17%: an insufficient rate considering that demand will rise by 21%.

On a regional scale, Asia is and will be - by far - the biggest consumer. Demographic and economic growth also translates into a growth in protein intake: more than thirty kilos per year per person in one of the most populated areas of the world. Africa, which expects an even more accentuated demographic boom in the coming years, will also need a lot of protein, despite the fact that it is currently the region of the world with the lowest documented per capita consumption of fish: around 10%. All this, according to FAO forecasts, will be accompanied by a logical increase in fish prices, which will make the situation even more tense.

The Pacific and Africa, the big hotspots

And if fish is the new oil, the Pacific Ocean is the new Middle East. To give an example, it is in the waters of this region that 60% of the world's tuna, one of the most sought-after fish on the global market, is caught. And it is not just tuna. This explains why large fishing boats from Europe, the United States, Australia and, of course, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and, above all, China patrol with their nets at the ready. But it is Beijing that uses the most aggressive strategy.

The Asian giant breaks most of the records in the global fishing sector: it is the country that produces by far the most fish (35% of the world total, far from the 7% of Indonesia, the second largest producer); it is also the one that exports the most, the one that generates the most aquaculture fish or the country that has the most fishing boats around the world.

A recent Pentagon report said that China "is building a state fishing fleet to occupy the South Sea and use it as a defense force, a third arm of the navy at the same time". Xi Jinping's government claims much of these waters on historical grounds and builds artificial islands to ensure its presence. However, the surrounding countries, such as Vietnam, the Philippines or Taiwan, and also the United States, oppose Beijing's demands, which has triggered a conflict of interests that in recent months has tightened the rope to unprecedented limits.

Obviously, there are many other attractions in the region, apart from fishing - gas and oil deposits or control of one of the most important trade routes - but no one forgets the tuna. And skirmishes between boats of different flags are commonplace.

Nevertheless, Asia's ambitions - and those of other powers as well - are no longer satisfied with the Pacific. Nor the Indian Ocean. The new big stage for global fishing is the African seas, rich in fish and hitherto not as exploited as the rest. Ships from all over the world have settled in the waters bordering Africa: from Mozambique or Tanzania to Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, Mauritania or Senegal.

A few months ago, ARA travelled to Senegal to see first-hand the impact of the great fishing empires on the local population. The most repeated phrase among the Senegalese was that foreign companies, with much more advanced techniques, were leaving them without fish and condemning them to poverty and, as a consequence, to immigration to Europe. On the high seas there were also fights between fishermen, including deaths.

Not just for food

Moreover, these foreign companies do not always catch fish for human consumption. China, king of the track in Africa, is a good example: in recent years it has established itself as the first importer of fishmeal, which it obtains by crushing the small fish it catches indiscriminately in African seas and which it then uses to make food for all kinds of animals. For example, feed that is sent to Saudi Arabia for chickens. Or to Romania to fatten pigs. Or that stays in China to be eaten by bigger fish in fish farms.

Europe, and particularly Spain, has also moved to the African seas. In the Old Continent, 35 of the 40 largest fishing grounds are overexploited and do not regenerate fast enough. For this reason, each year the date when Europe has consumed the equivalent of its entire annual fish stocks is brought forward: in 2019, the last year before the pandemic shock, this day came on 9 July. It is increasingly rare to find European fish in the continent's fishmongers and supermarkets: it now accounts for only 40% of what is on the market; the rest comes from outside.

Two young men working in the fish drying area in the port of Saint Louis.

And in Latin America there is also tension: Russian, Chinese and Spanish boats compete to catch squid or cod in the waters around Argentina - in 2016, the Argentine coastguard sank a Chinese fishing boat. Tuna in Chile. Shark in Colombia or Ecuador. Or totoaba in Mexico, a fish that is popularly called the cocaine of the sea because of the monetary value it is given. The Mexican government has had recent run-ins with Beijing over episodes related to the capture of this fish, which is protected but highly sought after on the Chinese black market.

Illegal fishing

And the latter is one of the added problems: the illegal fish market, which already accounts for between 20% and 30% of the total. And as a report by the World Economic Forum recalled, there are more and more transnational criminal organisations that exploit fishing to finance other activities: drug trafficking, arms and even human trafficking.

The same report, which places fish as one of the great keys to the geopolitics of the future, launches a very illustrative warning: the global obsession to ensure the catch is such that several powers are already beginning to see in the melting of the poles, now protected, an opportunity to increase their production.