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'Fish Fights' Could Erupt as Climate Change Drives Species Across Borders

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The "salmon wars" between the U.S. and Canada in the 1990s could foreshadow conflicts to come as climate change pushes fish species towards the poles. David Menke / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A study published in Science on Friday warned that climate change could spark global conflict over an unexpected resource: fish.

As waters warm, fish and other animals are already moving into new territory at a rate of 70 kilometers (approximately 43.5 miles) per decade, and that pace could accelerate in the future. If we do not act to lower greenhouse gas emissions, new fish species will enter the waters of at least 70 countries by 2100, challenging the regulatory framework for managing fishing rights, according to a University of British Columbia (UBC) press release.


This could lead both to overfishing and international conflict as countries compete for moving species.

"I've got a three-year-old son, and sometimes it seems like he's better at sharing than countries are with fisheries," lead author and Rutgers University assistant biology professor Malin Pinsky told National Geographic.

The research team included marine ecologists, fisheries scientists, social scientists and lawyers and used models to predict the movement of 892 different fish stocks, according to the UBC press release. Climate change tends to urge marine life towards the poles. By 2100, at least a third of many countries' national catch could come from species that didn't live in their waters decades before. In East Asia, where there are already tensions over fishing rights due to illegal fishing and disputed boundaries, some countries could find at least 10 new species in their waters that were managed by other countries before, National Geographic reported.

"Marine fishes do not have passports and are not aware of political boundaries; they will follow their future optimal habitat," study co-author and UBC postdoctoral fellow Gabriel Reygondeau said in the press release. "Unfortunately, the potential change of distribution of highly-valuable species between two neighbouring countries will represent a challenge for fisheries management that will require new treaties to deal with transboundary fish stocks."

The paper cited two examples of past disputes that hint at what's to come.

In the 1990s, Pacific salmon moved from British Columbia to U.S. waters as the ocean warmed, igniting a "salmon war," according to the Huffington Post. The UBC release explained that U.S. fishermen caught fish heading to Canada, while Canadian fishermen caught fish migrating to the U.S. At one point, Canadian fishermen even blockaded an Alaskan ferry, and British Columbia sued the U.S. In 2000, the two countries finally came to a new agreement and the suit was dropped, the Huffington Post reported.

In another example, conflict escalated in 2007 when mackerel migrated en masse into Iceland's waters, leading to a "mackerel war" between Iceland and the Faroe Islands and the EU over the two countries' rapidly increased mackerel takes. The war also escalated to a blockade when Scottish fisherman prevented a Faroese ship from unloading. Scientists said the dispute led to unsustainable fishing of the silvery fish, according to National Geographic, and the Huffington Post reported that the conflict scuttled Iceland's entry into the EU.

"Even in the countries with the best of governments, those disputes are difficult to manage," study co-author and sustainability researcher with the Stockholm Resilience Center Jessica Spijkers told National Geographic.

The paper urged governments to forestall future conflict by implementing policies that allow nations to trade fishing permits and quotas.

"Examples of such flexible arrangements already exist, such as the agreement for U.S.-Canada Pacific salmon and Norway-Russia Atlantic herring," senior study author and UBC Institute for Oceans and Fisheries associate professor William Cheung said in the press release. "Fisheries management organizations can draw from these experiences to proactively make existing international fisheries arrangements adaptable to changing stock distributions."

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