Illegal fishing and overfishing are increasingly the cause of armed conflicts across the world’s oceans, research suggests. Both practices reduce an important yet difficult to defend food source for billions of people worldwide.
Jessica Spijkers researched the issue of fishing and fighting for Australia’s national science agency. She found that fishing conflicts rose internationally over 40 years ending in 2016. She says conflicts often involved claims of illegal and overfishing. Her examination included disputes that sometimes came before the fighting.
The Associated Press also investigated the fishing issue. It examined records and reports from independent conflict databases and governments, as well as news media. It found in the past five years, government forces have attacked foreign fishing boats more than 360 times. The AP says such action sometimes led to deaths.
During that same time, another 850 foreign fishing boats were seized by officials and systematically crushed, blown up, or sunk.
The numbers represent activity across six continents and such events are likely underreported. There is no single organization that documents all the world’s violent conflicts over fishing rights.
Environmental and national security experts say countries that depend on fishing, both as for food and commerce, are at risk of greater conflict in the coming years.
Industrial fishing has left many ocean areas lacking. Fishing boats are traveling farther outside their country’s waters in search of fish as a result. The search for new sources of fish comes as nations need to feed growing populations and climate change further endangers ocean life.
Johan Bergenas is an expert on oceans with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, or WWF. He first warned of a rise in fishing conflicts five years ago. He says the problem has worsened.
“We are now seeing armed conflict and tensions and strains as a result of fish stocks and competition over in West Africa, in the West Indian Ocean, in Latin America,” Bergenas said.
As a result, “There’s going to be conflicts and armed engagements” over important fish stocks around the world, he said.
Conflict in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, fishermen and their supporters protested the use of Sri Lankan waters by foreign fishing businesses. They accuse Indian boats of entering Sri Lankan waters by the thousands, taking valuable sea produce when they go. Sri Lankan fishermen say they have lost business and some have lost their lives in conflicts with the foreign fishers.
Protestors demanded more action from the government. Sri Lanka’s navy already has taken action in the past. It has destroyed equipment belonging to Indian fishers. It has chased away foreign boats. In one conflict, it reportedly fired weapons at foreign fishing boats.
Five Indian fishermen were reportedly killed last year in conflicts with the navy. Sri Lankan officials deny they killed or shot at crews, and say they were not the aggressors.
For many countries, violent conflicts at sea are the last effort to keep foreign ships from fishing illegally.
Countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Australia try to stop illegal fishing by making a show of their enforcement. They line seized boats with explosives and set them on fire.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries says officials sank more than 370 foreign fishing boats in the past five years.
Indonesia, with more than 17,000 islands, is more sea than land.
Andreas Aditya Salim is the co-founder of the Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative and a past member of the fishing ministry. He said seeing his country destroy foreign fishing boats felt “heroic.”
“This is important for my country. We have to defend it,” he said. The explosions send a message that “illegal fishing stops here.”
I’m Gregory Stachel.
Helen Wieffering reported this story for the Associated Press. Gregory Stachel adapted it for our VOA Learning English readers and listeners.
Words in This Story
commerce – n. activities that relate to the buying and selling of goods and services
tension – n. a state in which people, groups, or countries disagree with and feel anger toward each other
strain – n. something that is very difficult to deal with and that causes harm or trouble
engagement – n. a fight between military forces
incredible – adj. difficult or impossible to believe
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