Fishing on Savage Seas

The next big war will not be over highfalutin ideologies. Depleted natural resources will force vulnerable countries to fight for basic goals: food and economic security. The struggle will intensify as climate change affects natural resource distribution. Changes in distribution are dangerous, especially for countries whose economies are dependent on unpredictable resources like fish.

National vulnerability to the impacts of climate change on marine fisheries.

National vulnerability to the impacts of climate change on marine fisheries.

A recent study revealed that Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change on fisheries. Analyzing 147 states and their respective EEZs, the study found that SIDS held seven of the top ten positions in the study’s vulnerability index. Moreover, the index includes all 31 of the LDCs with coastlines, with 87% of those LDCs belonging to the top half.

A separate study found that disparities in vulnerability levels, when paired with poor governance, tend to result in unrest and violent conflict. Poor governance results in poor resource management. Poor resource management leads to overfishing. Overfishing results in scarcity, which drives more people to the coasts and out into contentious waters. The fact that territorial boundaries do not consider traditional fishing routes only exacerbates the problem.

Vietnamese fishing boats caught illegally fishing of Palau's coasts. (Photo by Jeff Banube, The Pew Charitable Trusts)

Vietnamese fishing boats caught illegally fishing of Palau’s coasts. (Photo by Jeff Banube, The Pew Charitable Trusts)

These results are more than mere variables scientists feed into a formula. On the oceans, the battle over marine resources has already begun. Empty fisheries along coastlines have pushed fishermen further out to sea – sometimes into dangerous waters owned and closely guarded by other states. Just this April, Indonesia blew up 81 fishing vessels operated by Vietnamese, Filipino, and Malaysian fishermen. Last year, Argentina sank a Chinese fishing vessel caught illegally fishing in restricted South American waters. In 2015, Palau burned Vietnamese fishing vessels poaching off Palau’s coasts. The frequency of these incidents hints at a bigger, more serious problem that the international community has only begun to address.

Mitigating climate change is an obvious solution to this problem. However, achieving the two-degree-celsius goal of the Paris Agreement is only part of the answer. The other part consists of finding a way to manage marine resources equitably and sustainably. And, several states have begun doing just that.

From June 5-7, 2017, Fiji and Sweden co-hosted the first Oceans Conference at the U.N. Headquarters in New York. It was convened pursuant to UN Resolution 70/1 of September 25, 2015, adopting Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. One of the goals is to  “[c]onserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”  This goal, termed Goal 14, ambitiously sets out to effectively end overfishing and illegal fishing practices, and implement the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Oceans Conference encourages stakeholders – consisting of the UN System, state actors, and non-state actors – to register voluntary commitments to achieve Goal 14. There are currently over 1000 voluntary commitments registered in the Conference’s online platform, forty-four percent of which came from governments, including India and China.

This momentum will likely carry over to Fiji’s agenda in COP23. Speaking to Pacific Island leaders and diplomats in Suva, Fiji on March 2017, Fijian Prime Minister and COP23 President Voreqe Bainimarama said:

Prime Minister Bainimarama at the Climate Action Pacific Partnership (CAPP) event held in Suva, Fiji on March 2017. The event was organized to support and strengthen the participation of small island developing states in the Pacific in the global climate action agenda.

Prime Minister Bainimarama at the Climate Action Pacific Partnership (CAPP) event held in Suva, Fiji on March 2017.

“In a very real sense, we are fighting a two-front war. One front is the fight to keep the oceans clean and to sustain the marine plant and animal life on which we depend for our livelihoods and that keep the earth in proper balance . . . The other front is the fight to slow the growth of global warming and, unfortunately, also to adapt to the changes we know are coming – to rising seas, encroaching sea water, violent storms and periods of drought.”

The world’s oceans is a highly contentious area “governed” by a different set of international treaties. It is unlikely that the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement can address the problem on their own. However, the frequency of violent incidents at sea and the urgency of addressing this volatile situation calls for a unified and streamlined solution that cuts across multiple international agreements. The hope is that with Fiji – a small island developing state – at the helm of COP23, the oceans will finally receive the attention they deserve.