27 Sep 2018 Story Disasters & conflicts

Trawling for peace in a warming planet

From the South China Sea to the English Channel, Lake Victoria to the Pacific Ocean, the last few decades have seen increased competition for fish stocks. Unlike many other agricultural products which are stationary, many species of fish are highly migratory across various maritime boundaries.

Annually, more than 80 million metric tons of seafood is harvested from the oceans, providing nearly 3 billion people with more than 20 per cent of their animal protein needs and sustaining the livelihoods of 10 per cent of the global population. However, research published in the journal Science warns that climate change is already compromising these benefits through changes in stock productivity and location.

The authors of the article titled Preparing ocean governance for species on the move, published in June, say that while there is considerable scope to increase global fisheries yield, conservation and profitability by improving current fishery management, climate change could compromise these potential upside benefits through changes in stock productivity distribution.

They caution that shifting species have caused conflict domestically and between countries that historically had close ties.

“The oceans have already absorbed 93 per cent of the heat from anthropogenic climate change, and if future species geographic shifts exceed historical variation, adjustment to existing ocean governance will be needed,” say the authors, adding that “limiting greenhouse gas emissions would therefore reduce the potential for new fisheries conflicts.”

Infographic by Frontiers 2017/UN Environment

In 2009, a UN Environment report titled “From conflict to peacebuilding: the role of natural resources and the environment” warned that as the global population continues to grow there is significant potential for conflicts over natural resources to intensify in the coming decades.

It also noted that cooperation over the management of shared natural resources provides new opportunities for peacebuilding.

While international law recognizes the importance of cooperation in management of shared fish stocks, the current legal framework for international regulation of fisheries does not directly account for fluctuating or changing distribution of stocks.

The recent dispute between French and British scallop fishing crews in the English Channel could be a pointer to increasing difficulties in enforcing maritime boundaries around rapidly changing natural habitats. Days after a truce was reached on the scallops row, a fresh disagreement emerged after the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation accused French trawlers of deliberately damaging crab pots off the Cornwall coast. 

Tensions in August between French and UK fishermen over fishing rights led to talks between their respective governments which culminated in a peaceful settlement in September. Photo by France 3 Caen/Reuters

While disputes over access to fish stocks can cause tensions between countries or communities, fisheries management can also provide avenues for cooperation by drawing on lessons learnt from other initiatives for sharing natural resources.

In Sudan’s North Darfur, UN Environment, in partnership with the non-governmental organization Practical Action, implemented the Wadi El Ku food security and disaster resilience project which was funded by the European Union.

It targeted about 81,000 residents from farming, pastoralist and agropastoralist communities in North Darfur where recurrent flash floods and droughts were a source of food insecurity and sometimes a cause for conflicts at local level.

In June 2017, UN Environment and Practical Action won the Land for Life Award in recognition of the role of the project in establishing five community forests, irrigating 315 hectares of land, rehabilitating existing water structures, reseeding 1, 214 hectares of rangeland and setting up a water management committee.

While war and conflicts pose risks to the environment, and tensions over natural resources can also fuel or amplify local conflicts, they also offer significant opportunities to foster cooperation and peacebuilding.

UN Environment, in collaboration with the Environmental Law Institute, the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Duke University, and the University of California at Irvine, developed a groundbreaking massive open online course on environmental security and sustaining peace.

The inaugural course, which was conducted between 1 March and 10 May 2018, synthesized 100,000 pages of material and 225 case studies from over 60 post-conflict countries into seven hours of dynamic video lectures. It was based on experiences and lessons learned from over 1,000 experts and ten UN agencies.

Learn more about UN Environment’s work the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.