Out of the Frying Pan: Pacific Fisheries and a Fresh Take on Security in Asia

By Howard S. Schiffman

Bait net in the Maldives. Fisheries disputes have emerged as a significant source of regional insecurity in Asia. Source: Hani Amir's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Bait net in the Maldives. Fisheries disputes have emerged as a significant source of regional insecurity in Asia. Source: Hani Amir’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

The crisis in global and regional fisheries, and the overall stress on the oceans, needs to be viewed in the realm of security. Resource driven competition has put a new spotlight on the oceans as a source of security threats – including fisheries. Dwindling fish stocks and increasingly aggressive action to ensure access to bountiful fishing grounds serve to highlight growing concern about fisheries as an aspect of Asia-Pacific security. Although less glamorous than traditional security threats, fisheries concerns might lead to new security challenges, or aggravate old ones.

Let’s start with an obvious reality: China has a huge population and huge populations need lots of protein. Naturally, fish is a traditional source. The oceans are under stress and the capacity of the oceans to give up sufficient protein, including through aquaculture production, should be a global concern. Therefore, it should be no surprise that Chinese fisheries are a key element of this discussion. According to the Food and Aquaculture Organization’s 2012 State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture Report, China, which recently improved the way it tracks such statistics, is both a big consumer, and also by far the largest exporter, of fish. In some cases, it is such a prominent player in worldwide fisheries that it is useful to report statistics comparing China with everyone else.

China also employs almost 14 million people as fishers or fish farmers. Although there is evidence of rebuilding in certain species, most commercial fish stocks worldwide are either fully exploited or over-exploited.  This is a danger sign when so many people are dependent upon fish both to earn their living and to eat. Growing Indo-Pacific populations coupled with declining fish stocks are a recipe for regional insecurity.

Beyond the issue of food security consider classic geopolitics in East Asia. Both the Diaoyu/Senkaku island dispute, between China and Japan, and the Spratly Island dispute in the South China Sea are among the most visible maritime disputes in the world. Access to fishing grounds is a factor in both disputes but crucially, it can also be used as a pretext to justify types of military action in those disputes. To cite just one example, in April 2013 a flotilla of boats carrying Japanese nationalists approached the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands claiming they were there to survey fishing grounds. They were shadowed by Japanese Coast Guard vessels and Chinese surveillance ships were not far away.

These encounters cannot be underestimated for their security implications. Aggressive law enforcement actions, even military action, are not unheard of in the history of fisheries. The Atlantic Ocean offers some examples. While most would say the Atlantic today is a source of fewer security threats than the Pacific, between the 1950s and 1970s the United Kingdom and Iceland had a series of confrontations in the North Atlantic in the so-called “Cod Wars.” In 1995, Canada arrested the Spanish fishing vessel Estai on the High Seas in the North Atlantic when it was fishing for Greenland Halibut stocks claimed and protected by Canada. This “Turbot War” led to a highly contentious dispute in international law. Furthermore, France has arrested vessels on several occasions that it accused of illegal fishing for Patagonia Toothfish in the South Atlantic. In the Pacific where there are more underlying geo-political tensions, fisheries conflicts can exacerbate them.

One geopolitical flashpoint is Taiwan’s status in these disputes. The level of tension across the Taiwan Strait is always on the radar of regional security analysts. In that vein, Pacific fisheries are an area where regional powers have had to tread lightly as Taiwan becomes more of a player. In September 2012 Taiwan joined the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO), an intergovernmental body in which China is also a member. Taiwan is a member of other similar bodies such as the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT) and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) but it does so under familiar euphemisms, such as Chinese Taipei, so as not to antagonize China’s sensibilities about its status. In April 2013, Taiwan and Japan entered into an agreement to address competing fisheries claims in the contested Diaoyutai Islands. While laudable, this agreement did nothing to address the underlying sovereignty claim over the islands. In May 2013, Taiwan experienced tension with the Philippines when the Philippine Coast Guard shot a Taiwanese fisherman in disputed waters in the Luzon Strait.

This all leads to the inevitable conclusion that fisheries are a growing factor in global security. In the Pacific with its complex web of inter-connected security concerns, the status of fish and fishers need to be respected. Effective conservation policy and global education on the value of healthy oceans, needs to be thought of as a security issue, not just a matter of environmental policy.  Across Asia, with no shortage of existing tensions and security challenges, dwindling fish stocks are a complicating factor. Policy-makers at the regional and global levels need to acknowledge the security challenges posed by the worsening condition of our oceans and act accordingly. This should include a greater willingness to subject fisheries disputes to international dispute settlement. This can be achieved in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Regional bodies, such as ASEAN, should pursue fisheries issues with increased vigor. Beyond the obvious concern for resource and food security, the potential to affect regional security in traditional ways justifies a rethinking of our oceans.

Dr. Howard S. Schiffman is Visiting Associate Professor of Environmental Conservation Education at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.



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