Resource Warfare on the High Seas

Failure to get serious about overfishing as a form of resource warfare will lead to depleted fisheries and collapsed marine environments which will exacerbate economic inequality, food scarcity and regional instability.
Kevin Edes | FEBRUARY 16, 2024
Resource Warfare on the High Seas

Kevin Edes

Maritime Security Analyst



The world’s oceans are the front lines of a resource warfare being waged by industrialized fishing fleets. These fleets, sanctioned and often subsidized by the home state, are highly efficient at wiping out all marine life and generally lack any oversight. Operating far beyond overfished home waters, these fleets pillage other nation’s fishing grounds, decimating fish stocks that local communities depend on for their economic and food security.

The most efficient, largest, and ruthless distant water fishing fleet belongs to China. With over 17,000 vessels, Chinese fleets are responsible for 58% of all illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing worldwide.

How does it all work?

Fishing fleets operate in organized groups. Fishing boats use longlines or, more commonly, trawling to collect up any and all marine life in the area. The boats then transfer their catches to a larger “mothership” or “factory ship” which processes (filets, boxes and freezes) the fish for direct shipment to market. The fishing boats also resupply and refuel with the mothership, avoiding the need to return to port so they can remain at sea to maximize their profits. 

Most industrialized maritime countries operate these fleets far from their own shores, and the only regulations or rules they follow, if any, are imposed by the home country (flag state). Most maritime nations lack the necessary resources to ensure these foreign fleets are not illegally poaching fish within their exclusive economic zones.

The IUU fishing problem has finally reached the mainstream public, and China’s abuses are now well documented. Governments are organizing, coast guards are dealmaking and generous prizes are offered. Despite these efforts, Chinese fishing fleets retain the advantage in this resource warfare, which has led to the global fish supply being 35% overfished or higher.

The problem is metastasizing.

CH fleet density.jpgSource: Indo-Pacific Defense Forum

Recent satellite imagery and analysis by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative discovered Chinese fishing boats pillaging delicate marine habitats of their giant clam populations in the West Philippine Sea. Chinese ships use high pressure pumps and brass propellers to rip these 500-pound, 100-year-old elders from coral reefs with devastating impacts to reef health. Irreplaceable giant clams, which serve as food, shelter, and builders of reefs, are stolen to feed the world’s voracious appetite for fancy jewelry, statues and beachside decor.

Off the coast of  South America, industrial sized Chinese fleets hunt squid in an endless quest to fulfill requests for calamari on appetizer menus around the world. China accounts for 99% of the fishing around Ecuador’s famed Galapagos Islands. 

If you think overfishing doesn't affect your own country, it already has. Over 90% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, with an estimated 11% connected to illegal activity worth an estimated $2.4 billion. This number is probably far higher given the near-impossible challenge of monitoring fish supply from catch to plate.

Many countries and international organizations have recognized the need to combat IUU fishing, but action is far behind what the Chinese and other fleets are able to exploit. Conditions have improved around the globe in fisheries management practices and local regulations, but effective maritime domain awareness and international legal consequences remain absent.

Do governments have the capacity or will to tackle this issue? 

People need fish for both nutritional subsistence and economic opportunity, but there is no police force patrolling the world’s oceans. The fishing industry has powerful lobbies and most maritime countries subsidize their own fleets engaged in IUU activity. IUU fishing remains the type of issue governments are loath to take on.

Immediate attention and resources are needed today to prevent the collapse of an irreplaceable collective resource in the future. 

prc fishing.jpeg

Chinese fleets have 1.4 billion mouths to feed, requiring 65 million tons of fish. The U.S., European Union, and East Asia all import large quantities of fish from China.  Co-dependence makes this issue even more challenging. Fleets will continue to fish without constraints to the point of fisheries collapse because there is financial reward and national incentive.

This is a generational problem that will only worsen as demands for seafood rise with population growth. Failure to get serious about IUU fishing as a form of resource warfare will lead to depleted fish resources and collapsed marine environments. This will in turn exacerbate economic inequality, food scarcity and regional instability.

It is not just a fish problem--this issue impacts economic, food, and national security as an essential resource to many nations’ continued viability. Fish is rapidly becoming a finite resource that distant water fleets are ravishing while governments delay the necessary investments in technology, maritime resources and legal governance. 

In this theater of warfare China's fishing fleet is winning, but everyone else is losing.

Kevin Edes

Kevin is a Maritime Security Analyst for Project Myoushu at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation. He is a Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard with advanced degrees from the School of Global Policy and Strategy at U.C. San Diego and the U.S. Naval War College. Opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of any of the above institutions.

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