How the World is going crazy over fish.

As the world’s population and consumption increases, skirmishes for natural resources become ever critical. At the heart of these conflicts is a struggle for sovereign rights fuelled by the deeply human need to provide oneself with a livelihood. 

Following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the fishing industry has been struck hard by the increased red tape needed to export to the trading bloc. Fishermen in Scotland have reported that tonnes of shellfish have been rotting in port following an EU ban on UK exports of the produce. James Withers, chief executive of Scottish Food and Drink, has stated that many fishing companies have sold their stock at barely 10% of the price they normally charge to the EU. 

In a cruel twist of fate, the industry that apparently voted 92% in favour of leaving the European Union appears to be one of the withdrawal’s prominent victims. 

Naturally the UK government has offered reassurance to fishing businesses across the country, promising increased financial support for those who have lost out to the shellfish ban or a decrease in demand as a result of COVID-19. 

The authorities likely view this episode as an unfortunately-timed amalgamation of issues with both the pandemic and short-term regulatory confusion arising from Brexit. But the issues plaguing the British fishing industry have deeper roots. 

The main reason for UK trawlermen’s hatred of the EU dates back to 1973 when Edward Heath took the country into the EEC (European Economic Community), reducing the UK’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) from 200 nautical miles to only 12. This meant that fishing vessels from across the EU were granted access to waters that were previously exclusively harvested by British fishermen. Denmark is a country that benefits significantly from this arrangement as 40% of the fish Danish fleets land come from the UK’s EEZ. The British industry hoped to capitalise on the reduction of foreign competition as they ‘take back control’ of the country’s territorial waters. 

Whilst sovereignty of these seas are not questioned, the blurring of maritime borders raises the question regarding who truly has the right to fish in them. In 2017, Denmark announced that it was challenging Britain’s plan to take back exclusive control of its waters, citing historical fishing patterns since the 15th century

In truth, the French, Dutch and Danish have shared for many centuries the same fishing areas with the British that the latter is trying to take exclusive control of. Removing their fleets would cause irrevocable harm to their respective fishing communities. 

As demand for natural resources such as fish increases, there is no doubt that fights over fishing rights will continue to escalate as previously amicable arrangements are torn up as countries tear up ancient rules.

Elsewhere, century-old multicultural ties are becoming increasingly unstable. In Nova Scotia, Canada, indigenous lobstermen have become victims of violent attacks from their commercial counterparts. The animosity arises from the former’s right to hunt lobster year round, whereas others are prohibited. 

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Cover Photo: Arthur Goldstein


The commercial fishermen accuse the Mi’kmaq people of undermining conservation strategies which would keep the Lobster industry sustainable in the long-term. Both sides see the issue as an existential fight for the future of their livelihoods, in rhetoric that is strikingly similar to the nationalistic political jousting on the other side of the Atlantic.

Internationally, fishing rights have been used as a geo-political weapon by China. The country uses its vast fishing fleets to assert its dominance and controversial claims on the contested South China Sea. These commercial armadas contain refuelling and monitoring ships, fishing vessels and boats purely there to ram foreign and competing fishermen. 

At times these swathes of boats have instigated a military response with the Indonesian Navy, accompanied by F-16 fighter jets, being used to repel 63 Chinese-flagged fishing vessels earlier this year.

China has also provoked the ire of coastal countries across the world with its deep-sea fishing expeditions. The country is the largest exploiter of this industry by a long margin. It was recently estimated, using satellite technology, that its fleet is above 17,000 vessels (it had previously been believed to have been 5,000). But they have angered Argentina and Ecuador, among others, for straddling the borders of Latin American countries’ EEZ. 

Argentina has sunk, captured and fined several Chinese ships in recent years, often because the vessels tried to ram the Navy and Coastguard boats that had challenged them. 

The concern is that these massive flotillas risk damaging the ecological environments they operate in, having an adverse effect on the quantity of produce that native fishermen are able to collect. In Ecuador these armadas have drawn hostility as they have been spotted close to the protected Galapagos Islands. 

Dr. Dyhia Belhabib has warned about the potential impact that this will have on on-shore fishing communities whose livelihoods will be threatened by decreasing hauls. This then heightens their susceptibility to illicit activities such as drug smuggling, human trafficking, or illegal trade. 

The likely cause for China’s increasingly aggressive fishing policy is its own increasing consumption of the produce and their need to carve their ‘rightful’ place in the world. The superpower used to only eat 7 kilograms of fish per person per year, but now it consumes 37.8 kilograms per capita per year which amounts to 38% of international fish production. To keep up with demand it can’t rely on its backyard.

Overfishing in China’s territorial waters has caused the original biomass in the area to plummet to below 15% of the original fish population

China has put its right to feed its people above the livelihoods of South American coastal communities and the sovereignty of its neighbours. Whilst on a significantly larger scale to Brexit and racial tensions in Canada, all these conflicts have pertinent similarities. All are framed in terms of future survival and within ‘us vs them’ parameters. It provides haunting omens for the rest of the century. As natural resources are put under greater strain, countries, communities and peoples will be pit against each other in battles framed in increasingly absolutist and hostile terms. 


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