The twin threats of climate change and growing nationalism could lead to an outbreak of conflicts over fish stocks – like the infamous Cod Wars between the UK and Iceland – that could threaten the global supply of food and “decimate” marine ecosystems, experts have warned.
Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Boston on Thursday, a panel of experts said that with the right management and international co-operation the number of fish in the sea and the amount caught by fishing fleets could increase over the coming decades.
However, they warned rising temperatures were prompting many species to move to different parts of the sea, which could threaten some individual countries’ economies and access to food.
And this, fueled by the growth in nationalist sentiments, could see a new “era of fish wars” as countries compete for stocks.
While individual states might emerge as the winner of a conflict, the ensuing free-for-all – as fleets go after as many fish as they can for fear they would be caught by a rival country’s boats – could be devastating for stocks in the long run.
During the Cod Wars between the UK and Iceland between the 1950s and 1970s, British gunboats were sent to ward off Icelandic boats from disputed waters.
Eventually, it was agreed that Iceland would be allowed to catch any fish within its 200-mile territorial limit, an outcome seen as a victory for Reykjavik.
A more recent trade war erupted in 2010 over mackerel in the North Atlantic between the European Union and Iceland, Norway, and the Faroes.
Michael Harte, a professor of marine geography at Oregon State University, said he had been looking into the “winners and losers” from climate change’s effects on fisheries.
“If we succeed in doing this well, the world’s fisheries can do better than they are today,” he said.
“But if we fail to get it right, the losers will be the people … who depend on fisheries for their food and incomes.