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Climate change may lead to fish wars: here’s how to avoid them

by Kathleen McGinty | @edfoceans | Environmental Defense Fund
Thursday, 27 September 2018 13:44 GMT

French and British fishing boats collide during scrap in English Channel over scallop fishing rights, August 28, 2018 in this still image taken from a video. France 3 Caen/via REUTERS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Take a moment to think about what sort of clashes we could face across the thousands of fisheries around the globe if we fail to act

A recent video captured by fishermen in the English Channel shows a terrible fight - French and English fishing boats ramming each other, crew members screaming in anger and lobbing smoke bombs from their decks. It’s not a scene out of pirate movie, but a modern day clash of fishermen over the scallops that speckle the seafloor of the English Channel, waiting to be claimed. They’re fighting over a disagreement about who should be allowed to harvest this limited and valuable natural resource, and when.

While this brawl wasn’t driven directly by climate change, it’s sadly the type of conflict we risk seeing much more of in the coming years due to a changing climate that is affecting how many fish there are in the sea, where they live and who can afford to harvest them.

Fishermen worldwide are already feeling the impact of warming oceans as fish move and mismanagement continues. And if we do nothing, scientists predict that 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks will be at serious risk of collapse in the next decade.

But a new study shows we have a chance to avoid one of the worst economic, environmental and social disasters we face from the impacts of climate change. Will we take it?

The study, conducted by a dozen leading scientists from the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and Hokkaido University, shows we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get ahead of the climate curve when it comes to fish and those who depend on them.

But only if more nations begin to manage fishing sustainably, work together on shifting stocks and establish policies that live up to the commitments agreed to in the Paris Climate Accord to avoid ruinous global warming. Taking those steps means we can increase the number of fish in the sea by nearly a third, while providing an additional 25 billion seafood meals and increasing profits for fishing communities by $14 billion by 2100.

The impacts of inaction are also clear. Billions of people rely on fish as an important source of protein, and right now 845 million people face serious malnutrition worldwide, in part due to poorly managed fisheries. Most fishing nations are not responding fast enough to create change and successful management programs across national boundaries are relatively rare.

Even if we get management right, there will still be winners and losers as warming waters mean that fish will move from the equator to the poles. This will likely leave poorer, equatorial nations with fewer fish – precisely those nations that will need this resource more in the coming years as populations increase.

The resounding good news is that overfishing is one of the most solvable environmental challenges we face. Studies have demonstrated that many fisheries can bounce back from overfishing in as little as 10 years’ time under the right policies.

But we need countries to work together to manage their natural resources. The cooperation between Chile, Peru and Ecuador offers one such example as they grapple with shifts in fish stocks due in part to climate change. The countries already are beginning to work together to manage regional fisheries, including some of the largest and most important fisheries in the world, such as anchovies.

Now, scientists and officials from all three are working cooperatively to better understand the new management realities from a changing climate and lay the groundwork for greater cooperation between these important fishing nations.

We need more countries to work together like our South American colleagues, or we will begin seeing an increase in the type of conflict that is playing out in the English Channel over scallops. Take a moment to think about what sort of clashes we could face across the thousands of fisheries around the globe if we fail to act. Now compare that to the many benefits we could realize if we chart the right course today. Which future do you want?


Kathleen McGinty is the head of Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans program and served as Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality during the Clinton Administration.