ECC Platform Library


Like Water and Oil: Fish as a Geostrategic Resource

27 August, 2018
Johan Bergenas (Vulcan Inc)

Access to and competition over natural resources has been one of the most common triggers for conflict. Throughout the centuries, countries and communities have fought over productive agricultural land, trade routes, spices, textiles, opium, and oil, to name just a few. But the battle over one natural resource—fish—has long been overlooked. As trends in the global fish industry increasingly mirror the conflict-ridden oil sector, fish may become the newest addition to the list of resources driving geopolitical competition. There are five parallels between oil and fish that call for increasing the sustainability of the fishing industry, or we might find ourselves facing what U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jay Caputo has called “a global fish war.”

A Concentrated Supply

Nearly half of the world’s total oil production in 2017 came from just five countries, and nearly half of the world’s proven recoverable crude is in the Middle East. As populations grow and economies develop, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) projects global demand for crude oil will increase by 15 percent by 2040. Global dependence and the need to secure supplies have driven countries to war; since 1973, oil is linked to between 25 and 50 percent of all interstate conflicts worldwide.

Similarly, roughly 60 percent of the world’s tuna is caught in one geographic region, the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. As such, the Pacific could be the Middle East of tuna, where hungry nations compete for the valuable resource. Conflict over fish can already be found in South and Northeast Asia, Central and South America, as well as in African waters.

A Tool for Political Power

From the Arab oil embargoes in the 1970s, to Russia shutting off gas supplies to its enemies in the 2010s, energy is increasing wielded as a geopolitical weapon. For example, Moscow used its “petro-power” to provide heavily subsidized energy to Ukraine when it was led by Russia-leaning President Kuchma. Under Western-friendly President Yushchenko, Russia disrupted supplies and imposed punitive price increases.

Decades of politics and posturing in the Arabian Gulf continue to focus on oil. Following the resurgence of disagreements between the United States and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, the Trump Administration re-imposed sanctions and moved to end oil shipments from Iran. Last weekend, Iran conducted military exercises in the Strait of Hormuz, which carries an estimated 20 percent of the oil traded worldwide, to demonstrate its ability to block the critical waterway.

Similarly, as one of the world’s most valuable fish species, tuna’s concentration in the Pacific has made sovereignty of those waters, and access to those fish, extremely valuable. With 22 small island states and territories within the Western and Central Pacific region alone, overfishing and squabbling over access and fishing rights is common. Political control of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), which was created via an international agreement to manage the region’s fisheries, is highly sought after, and equity among members is a constant concern.

China, a member of the WCPFC and the most fish-dependent country in the world, uses its fishing fleet, according to the Department of Defense, as a third arm of its navy. In its 2017 annual report to Congress on military developments in China, the Pentagon stated that “China is building a state-owned fishing fleet for its maritime militia force in the South China Sea.” By sending its fishing fleet into disputed waters, China can use those vessels as an excuse to deploy its Coast Guard cutters to defend the “helpless” fishing vessels. China has threatened war if any other nation, including the United States, attempts to bar them from the surrounding waters. It is not a stretch to think that the Chinese strategy of leading with its fishing fleet will be implemented in other rich fishing regions, like the Pacific.

A Finite Resource

While the global supply of proved oil reserves is projected to meet global demand through the middle of this century, oil is a finite fossil resource that cannot be replenished, which makes it unlikely that our dependence on oil can be sustained over the long term.  Similarly, while fish are technically a renewable resource, their future is precarious. Nearly 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks are fully exploited or overexploited, and some scientists estimate that in 30 years there may be little or no seafood available.

While fish production, largely driven by aquaculture, is expected to increase 17 percent by 2025, it won’t keep up with demand, which is projected to increase by 21 percent. At the same time, external forces like climate change are pressuring global fisheries. And while ramping up aquaculture could help address the global fish shortage, it is not necessarily sustainable and faces some serious challenges. While it is unlikely that we are down to the last fish, within a foreseeable future, wild-caught fish could become a thing of the past.

A Critical Commodity

Oil is the world’s most traded commodity and its primary fuel, supplying 33 percent of all of our energy. Furthermore, the strong global economy and growing world population are expected to increase the demand for oil in the coming years. Petrochemicals are integral in everything from lipstick to electronics to aspirin; oil byproducts are used in the production of plastics, lubricants, waxes, pesticides, and fertilizers. In 2015, the oil and gas industry supported 10.3 million jobs and contributed more than $1.3 trillion to the U.S. economy alone.

Similarly, one billion people currently depend on fish to meet their nutritional needs—and this number will grow as the population does, especially in developing parts of the world. Fish is the world’s most highly traded food commodity. In addition to the roughly 100 million tonnes that are consumed for food each year, fish also provide fish oil, glue, animal feed, and fertilizer, and play a growing role in biomedical research. Even without counting aquaculture, marine fisheries provide approximately 260 million jobs worldwide. If the sector collapses due to unsustainable and illegal fishing practices, it will have calamitous consequences for societies around the world.

A Growing Illicit Economy

While the value of crude oil production alone is a staggering $1.7 trillion, nearly $133 billion (or about 8 percent) ends up in the black market every year. The illegal petroleum trade undercuts business, undermines governments, and damages the environment. The perpetrators are increasingly connected to transnational organized-crime syndicates and terrorist organizations. For example, ISIS made as much as $3 million a day after it took control of oil production capacity in Syria and Iraq.

The seafood industry is significantly smaller, with nearly $150 billion in sales each year. But illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is valued at up to $36 billion a year—or about 25 percent of the legal market. Like oil, transnational criminal organizations exploit fish to fund their other activities: Mexican drug cartels, for example, diversify their income by trafficking in the totoaba fish, whose swim bladders sell for $20,000 per kilogram.

In the highly elastic illicit market, fishing vessels are used to traffic illegal drugs, arms, and even humans. Criminals can leverage their existing assets, especially boats, to move goods illegally through well-established global supply chains. In 2016, the U.S. Navy confiscated 1,500 Kalashnikov rifles, 200 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and 21 machine guns from a small fishing craft in the Arabian Sea smuggling arms from Iran to Yemen. The former U.S. commander of the Fifth Fleet, Vice Adm. Kevin M. Donegan, said “out-of-work fishermen”  were moving all sorts of illegal goods throughout the region. And the U.S. Coast Guard recently seized more than 17,000 pounds of cocaine, worth nearly $260 million, from four fishing boats off the coasts of Central and South America. As fish stocks continue to decline, fishermen will find it increasingly attractive to use their vessels to smuggle illegal goods.

Clearly, there are significant differences between oil and fish, and how nations and non-state actors leverage them as tools of economics and power. However, the gap is not as wide as policymakers and the public may think. Today, the United States spends very little—about $800-900 million depending how you count—on fisheries management and law enforcement. The U.S. military spends upwards of $60 billion per year to maintain a military presence in the Persian Gulf alone, in part to protect access to its oil resources. As the strategic value of fish continues to rise, the management and security of the fishing industry deserves more political attention and smarter policies to ensure a more sustainable and secure future.

BlogA New Climate for Peace




New Security Beat


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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