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​Climate Change Could Ignite 'Fish Wars,' But It Doesn't Have To

​Climate Change Could Ignite 'Fish Wars,' But It Doesn't Have To
Oceana / Carlos Minguell

By Amy Mcdermott

Wars are coming. They will begin with fish. Or so it would seem, as swirling schools of little bass and other seafood species dart across political lines this century.

Fish will cross unprecedented political boundaries by 2100 because of climate change, according to a recent study in the journal Science. Seventy or more countries will share new fisheries in the next 80 years, the study found, as fish relocate in response to ocean warming. Schools that once swam off a single nation will straddle two, sprawling across political borders they didn't cross before.

Countries will learn to share quickly or fight.

"When fish move across political boundaries, we're not good at sharing initially, or even for decades," said Malin Pinsky, an ecologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey and Oceana science advisor, who led the recent study. "That causes conflict to erupt."

Fights over fisheries are nothing new. French scallop fishermen lobbed rocks and smoke bombs at British boats off the Coast of Normandy last month: the latest in their 15-year battle over scallops (with tensions dating back at least 200 years). Iceland, Norway and the European Union have such bad blood over mackerel that Iceland withdrew its bid to join the EU in 2015. The U.S. and Canada are forever beefing over cod. But the speed and scale of change this century is unprecedented, experts say, and could have resounding political and environmental aftershocks.

"These problems might start in fisheries, but they often spill out beyond fisheries as well," Pinsky said. Bickering about fish has been a top cause of armed conflict since World War II. Consider the headline-making row between French and British fishermen last month, whose anger boiled down to disagreement about who can fish where. It's a spark that can ignite militarization when maritime borders are poorly defined, and countries are competing for a limited resource, according to one analysis.

If those countries get grabby, they can overexploit the fishery. Imagine two people facing a delicious piece of cake, Pinsky said, each suspicious that the other won't share. Both will lunge and "eat as much as they can, quickly," he explained. "In some ways, that's what's happening with fish."

Future feuds seem likely, but fish wars aren't guaranteed. Looking across countries that have shared well in the past, and countries that haven't, patterns of good behavior do emerge. Trust, cooperation and smart planning point the way to a less conflicted future.

Build Trust Early

Sharing seems like standard good behavior. Indeed, people—and governments—can be great sharers, with a little time to warm up to the idea.

Consider the Pacific island nations of Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and the Federated States of Micronesia: eight tiny countries that cooperatively manage the largest tuna fishery in the world. "They've built trust amongst each other over 30 years," said Kate Barclay, a marine social scientist at Australia's University of Technology Sydney.

Trust pays dividends in a complex cap-and-trade scheme for the region's skipjack tuna. It works like this: Every year, all eight countries agree how many days, total, commercial skipjack fishing will be allowed in all their waters. That's the whole pie, of which each country gets a slice—an allocation of days, which they can sell to foreign vessels for single-day fishing access, typically at a cost of $10,000 to $14,000 each, said lawyer Transform Aqorau, who pioneered the management system.

Trust comes into play because skipjack tuna don't hang out around every island every year, meaning some countries will sell out of fishing days, while others won't. In this system, the islands that sell out of days first just buy unused days from their neighbors. So even though the fish are unevenly spread in the water, everyone profits.

"There's been a great appreciation for a long time, by these small island nations, that they need to work together to achieve their mutual ends," said fisheries scientist Johann Bell of the University of Wollongong, Australia, and of Conservation International. Licensing fees paid by foreign fleets can account for as much as 80 percent of government revenue, he explained, "so they've got a huge stake in this."

And because there's a cap on fishing days available—the whole pie for all the islands—skipjack aren't overfished. Of course, there is some quibbling between countries over their allocation of days, Aqorau said, but overall, it's a successful system.

More countries will confront the question of sharing this century. The Pacific Islands are managing well, because they built trust early. At the broadest level, Rutgers' Pinsky said, avoiding fish wars "is about building trust before there's a crisis."

Don't Benefit at a Neighbor's Expense

Knowing that skipjack migrate, "the Pacific Islands could have said OK, well it's the luck of the draw, boys," Bell said. "If it's in your country you make a lot of money that year. If not, you don't."

Instead, small neighboring nations worked together to their mutual gain.

Thousands of miles north, in the considerably colder waters of the Barents Sea, Russia and Norway cooperatively manage another migratory fish: cod. While cod may be the poster child of overfishing in North America, it's thriving across the Atlantic.

Barents management worked where North America's failed, because Russia and Norway follow science-based catch limits set by a joint fisheries commission, wrote biologist John Waldman of Queens College New York, in Yale 360. The United States and Canada, on the other hand, managed cod independently in most places. The two countries just lunged for it.

Today in the Barents Sea, whether cod fishermen are Russian or Norwegian, they're free to fish off either country. When cod migrate, fishermen can follow. Neighbors don't shut each other out to get ahead.

Common decency may seem motivation enough, but altruism isn't necessarily a good foundation for policy, points out sustainability scientist Jessica Spijkers, a co-author of the recent Science study and doctoral student with the Stockholm Resilience Center and James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. Selfless ideals don't hold up well, she said, when a country's people are desperate, or in crisis.

For Norway, Russia and the Pacific Islands, playing nice benefits their neighbors. But more importantly, cooperation benefits themselves, more than going it alone. Lofty ideals might bring some countries to the table, but self-interest keeps them there. It's when neighbors feel stepped on that sharing breaks down.

Think Like a Fish: Without Borders

There are no walls in the ocean. Fish swim freely. Managing them as though they adhere to political lines sometimes doesn't work.

North American cod were overfished, for example, in part because Canada and the United States generally managed their fish separately on either side of the border. Overfishing is easy when one country has total control, Waldman said. Whereas, when two countries share responsibility, one side always keeps an eye on the other. In the Barents Sea, by contrast, cod are managed as one regional population. The same is true for skipjack in the Pacific.

Managing wild fish like, well, wild fish, makes a lot of sense, said Stockholm's Spijkers, but expanding management to international, regional scales is also challenging. One way to do it, she said, would be to create one international fishing fleet, that targets all the commercial species in a region. Then divide up that catch by country.

"Fish are so regional, I would say the fleet should be as well," Spijkers said. "That would be just brilliant."

Other resources, like rivers and forests also span borders, and in general, countries are better at sharing those than they are at sharing fish, Spijkers said. Part of the reason fisheries still cause such conflict is because the oceans are huge, hard to study and until recently, fish were considered an infinite resource. That Wild West mentality is finally changing, she said, and none too soon, as fish relocate this century.

"Shifts will happen. It's a reality, at least according to the models," Spijkers said. "It's time to start thinking about what we can really do, before these things erupt and become gridlock."

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.


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