New platform seeks to prevent ocean conflict in the face of climate change

By Jacqui Vogel (EDF) and Dr. Sarah Glaser (WWF)

Oceans are under immense threat from climate change. Around the world, oceanographic changes like melting sea ice, warming waters, sea level rise and shifting fish populations make access to marine resources more uncertain and less secure.

Climate change threatens to disrupt the communities, supply chains and food systems that rely on marine systems that are now rapidly changing. An impact of climate change is conflict in the ocean, including conflict over shifting and shrinking natural resources. Fisheries conflicts have increased 20-fold over the last 40 years, and 23% of all fish stocks are expected to shift in distribution by 2030. But scientists are working on a solution.

Ocean Futures is a first-of-a-kind platform that combines data from climate modeling, socioeconomics, and global fisheries to highlight hotspots of potential future ocean conflict. It was launched this year by the World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, and other partners. This platform provides intuitive information to spur increased awareness and engagement by the international community around factors that could contribute to conflict in the ocean. Environmental Defense Fund has been a partner in the development of this project, building upon recent research focused on the shifting boundaries of fish stocks in the face of climate change.

The Oceans Futures platform highlights 20 regions of the world that are likely to see increased conflict, food insecurity, or geopolitical tensions over fisheries by 2030. These regions include the waters of the Mediterranean, Indonesia and the South China Sea — areas characterized by neighboring national jurisdictions or shared international waters. All 20 hotspots can be explored in detail on the platform, but several areas are of particular interest to EDF and WWF.

The Ecuadoran hotspot is driven by an expected decrease in fish abundance, the presence of foreign fishing vessels and several militarized conflicts over fisheries. In Ecuadoran waters today, violent robbery against small-scale fishers is common. There are also widespread human and labor rights abuses on foreign vessels that target keystone species near the Galapagos. In recent years, the use of fisherfolk and fishing vessels in illicit maritime operations, such as drug cartel operations, has been growing. The waters of Ecuador present the opportunity to tie conflict to the conservation of well-known marine species and environments.

The Western Central Pacific islands are expected to lose up to 30% of their fish stocks by 2030. Compounding this risk is the high abundance of protected areas (which can lead to high levels of illegal fishing), the large number of foreign vessels and high dependency on seafood for nutrition. The Central Pacific has become a proxy for the growing tension between the United States and China. Home to expansive coral reef ecosystems which are important habitat for spawning fish and protected species, the Western Central Pacific is a vital area for marine biodiversity. Food security is a key concern, as shifting fish stocks will result in growing imports of processed and non-local food, contributing to health problems in the region. Fishing plays an important cultural and religious role in the region, and climate change impacts threaten this vital activity.

Some estimates show the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the world. Untapped and increasingly accessible resources like oil and gas deposits and fisheries due to melting sea ice create a particularly delicate geopolitical situation. The Arctic’s Indigenous population is disproportionately susceptible to the impacts of environmental change due to a heightened reliance on shifting marine resources. By highlighting the Arctic as a potential hotbed of future ocean conflict, Oceans Futures sets the stage for further engagement in Arctic governance and resilient management.

As the first of its kind, the launch of the Oceans Futures platform represents a significant milestone towards a resilient and conflict-free ocean — and it’s just the beginning. Over the next two years, we will be expanding the data and research on fisheries conflicts, improving the modeling behind the platform, and using our findings to help prevent illegal fishing, crimes at sea and fisheries conflict. Collaboration will be essential. EDF, WWF and partners are committed to finding solutions for our changing oceans. Our team will work to ensure our data is integrated and prioritized in policy processes to create real change on the water.

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