We have written a number of posts about the idea of fish wars but what would happen to the world if fish stocks really did collapse around the 2040 mark, which has been claimed by numerous marine biologists if fishing rates continue as they do. According to the World Resources Institute, fish are the primary source of protein for 1 billion people and make up one fifth of all animal protein consumed. Current catch levels stand between 110-120 million metric tonnes a year, but this is set to rise with the increase in global population numbers. The only way consumption rates can be maintained is with an increase of aquaculture, a trend that is not manifesting itself at an adequate scale. Therefore, it is reasonably certain that the world will see a shortage of fish protein within the next two to three decades (some stocks have already collapsed, see below).
Clashes involving fishing vessels are common in the world of today. The recent stalemate over Scarborough Shoal between China and the Philippines is probably the most high-profile event recently and is yet to resolve itself. If fish stocks do collapse, then there is little doubt that such clashes will end in violence. Developing nations particularly will be affected by fish protein shortages as, even if their waters are relatively rich in marine life compared to those that have been over-exploited, demand (and therefore prices) will mean the majority if fish landed will be exported to wealthier nations. Combined with the unemployment caused by lack of income for small-scale fishermen, these food shortages are a recipe for social strife, if not internally, then directed towards another nation. A comparison could be made with the price of basic food stuffs prior to the Arab spring.
Violence is just one possibility. Not long ago, China created an international panic when it halted exports or rare earth metals to Japan, over the arrest of a Chinese fishing vessel in Japanese waters. Around 95% of the rare earth element production comes from China and the materials are essential for the technology industry, which Japan economically relies upon. The spat has culminated in Japan, the EU, and the USA filing a case against China at the World Trade Organization accusing the nation of artificially driving up the price of rare earths. Future clashes, involving other resources and other countries, could end less peacefully.
To jeopardise such an important source of food is not only absurd mismanagement, but also completely illogical. Politicians are more concerned with the short-term profit gained by large fish hauls in the misguided belief they are helping their fishermen voters rather than planning out an effective strategy of sustainable exploitation of the world’s oceans, therefore securing the future of the fishing industry. With Oceans at the forefront of the agenda at the upcoming Rio+20 summit in Brazil, one would hope that some global restrictions will be set to curb over-fishing. However, the murmurings from the environmentalist bodies at the summit suggest that this is unlikely. With just over 1% of the oceans protected, it may be too late to stop a catastrophic collapse.