Illegal fishing, a multibillion-dollar industry closely linked to organized crime, is set to pose a greater threat to global security as climate change warms the world's oceans, according to a report by the Royal United Services Institute, a research organization based in London, in partnership with The Pew Charitable Trust.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated, or IUU, fishing is worth up to $36.4 billion annually, according to the report, representing up to a third of the total global catch.
As climate change warms the world's oceans, fish stocks are moving to cooler, deeper waters, and criminal operations are expected to follow.
"IUU actors and fishers in general will be chasing those fish stocks as they move. And there's predictions, or obviously concern, that they will move in across existing maritime boundaries and IUU actors will pursue them across those boundaries," report co-author Lauren Young told VOA.
RUSI said that global consumption of seafood has risen at more than twice the rate of population growth since the 1960s. At the same time, an increasing proportion of global fish stocks have been fished beyond biologically sustainable limits.
The report also highlights that fish play a key role in capturing carbon through feeding, so a decline in fish stocks itself could accelerate warming temperatures.
"Climate change will impact in other ways, with impacts on coastal erosion as well, and that will have impacts on local small-scale fisheries. As their livelihoods become more vulnerable, they may begin engaging more in IUU practices like disruptive fishing practices or engaging in other type of criminal activity as well."
"There is a nexus with other crime types as well, like narcotics, human trafficking and labor abuses," Young added.
Many poorer countries do not have the capacity to police their waters. In parts of Africa and South America, foreign trawlers — including many vessels from China — have devastated fish stocks. Beijing denies its fleets conduct illegal fishing.
The United States Coast Guard said in 2021 that IUU fishing had replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat. "If IUU fishing continues unchecked, we can expect deterioration of fragile coastal states and increased tension among foreign-fishing nations, threatening geo-political stability around the world," the document warned.
The United States launched a sustainable fishing initiative in Peru and Ecuador in October. Project "Por la Pesca" is aimed at helping artisanal fishing in the face of depleted stocks caused by IUU fishing.
"It's having a profound impact on stocks of fish, on the livelihoods of fisherpeople, on sustainability," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on a visit to Peru in October. "We have many countries around the world where fishing is at the heart of their economy and the heart of their culture as well, where illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing is a real and growing challenge."
South China Sea
RUSI highlights the warming South China Sea as a flashpoint. Already, fishing grounds and maritime boundaries are hotly contested, with frequent armed confrontations.
"Many relate to China's commitment to the nine-dash line, which is the country's self-declared sort of maritime boundary," said RUSI's Young. "And they enforce that through armed fishing militia. So that obviously plays into it a lot as well. But those existing tensions there are likely to be exacerbated by climate change. And that is in line with predictions of climate change being this kind of threat multiplier."
Earlier this month, United Nations member states agreed to the High Seas Treaty, aimed at protecting biodiversity by establishing vast marine protected areas.
"Whilst it's a positive move with climate change that we're looking to protect more of the world's oceans, we need to improve our ability to actually monitor and enforce [the agreements] as well," Young said.
The report authors call on governments and multinational bodies to tackle illegal fishing based on climate change predictions; enhanced vessel monitoring capabilities and tougher enforcement, with greater recognition on the role the industry plays in wider criminal networks.