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Imagining the future of fishery conflicts

Climate change is fundamentally altering the world’s oceans and their resources, heightening the risk of conflict between those who rely on them. A new article uses a narrative storytelling approach to explore how these clashes might occur, and how they could be avoided.

Molly Killeen / Published on 6 May 2021

Climate change is set to be a key driver of future fishery conflicts. Photo: Sanveen / Pixabay.

The world’s oceans are rife with change, from biophysical shifts to increasing human activity in marine industries, and with this rising uncertainty comes the heightened prospect of conflict on the open water.

While warnings from researchers have been mounting over the increasing likelihood of fishery conflicts, less attention has been paid to the ways in which many diverse factors, from the environmental to the economic, may interact to drive these outbreaks. A new article, co-authored by SEI research fellow Matthew Osborne, seeks to correct this by combining evidence and analysis with creative storytelling techniques to develop narrative scenarios. Set across four regions between the years 2030 and 2060, these scenarios explore how such conflicts could both come about and play out.

The article focuses on conflicts which could arise over the ownership and management of the world’s oceans and marine resources, as well as the potential interests and behaviours of those involved, from local fisherpeople to national governments and fishery industries.

It also examines the many factors that are driving conflict and have the potential to increase its occurrence in the future. Some of these are directly human; overfishing, for instance, can lead to declining catches and the collapse or extinction of species, as well as a rise in illegal or under-the-radar fishing and heightened competition between industries over space and resources.

Climate change is also set to be a crucial driver of fishery conflict. The shifts it will prompt in, for example, ocean temperatures and currents will disrupt the quantities and distribution of different species, affecting the routines and yields of those in the fishing sector. The consequences of this, the researchers warn, will likely impact fishery management even in “well-organized democracies” which might otherwise be thought of as experiencing few conflict stressors.

For these reasons, climate change is increasingly viewed as a growing security issue, but the article’s authors caution against framing it as an isolated concern. Instead, they argue, it should – like all other social, political and economic factors – be seen as amplifying the risk of an outbreak of fishery conflict through its interactions with a range of drivers. It is the interactions of these biophysical changes and societal realities that “prime the pump” for conflict.

While each scenario deals with points of disagreement between the actors involved, they also each facilitate discussion of how to avoid and overcome them. “As we see in the wider climate debate,” Osborne notes, “it can be all too easy for the narrative between different actors faced with systemic change to become characterized in zero-sum terms, especially when different actors have different priorities and interest within the same space.”

“By using narrative storytelling, we hope we can create an alternative focal point from the immediacy of actors’ current concerns and allow a ‘safe space’ in which discussions around future scenarios can encourage more positive interactions between actors.”

The scenarios

To explore how these complex interactions might catalyze real-world conflict, world-leading researchers came together to ponder this specific problem and come up with solutions, developing four scenarios set in different regions and decades in the future. Combining academic and creative approaches, their analysis of how friction might arise is accompanied by fictionalized material, such as the transcripts of imagined meetings between heads of state. Each scenario details not only the emergence of the conflict, but also the alternative pathways that it could take.

Click on the images to view each scenario. Design by Coralie Legrand.

Scramble for the Atlantic

Set in 2030, this scenario explores a burgeoning fishing conflict in the North East Atlantic, primarily between a post-Brexit UK and the “New Nordic Alliance” of Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. With climate change having pushed fish stocks further north, the scenario imagines the difficulty of negotiations over the UK’s access to resources no longer in its waters, and how the outcome of these discussions might be shaped by the political and economic impact of the country’s departure from the EU.

Scramble for the Atlantic, Stage 1 / Design: Coralie Legrand

Scramble for the Atlantic, Stage 2 / Coralie Legrand

Scramble for the Atlantic, Stage 3 / Coralie Legrand

The Remodelled Empire

This scenario imagines a meeting between heads of state and international organizations in the year 2045, following the outbreak of military conflict in the East China Sea triggered by an altercation between a Chinese submarine and Japanese fishing vessel. It explores the diplomatic relations between states in the region, as well as the UN, ASEAN and the US, as they discuss how to resolve the brewing conflict and prevent an escalation or spill-over into other areas.

The Remodelled Empire, Stage 1 / Design: Coralie Legrand

The Remodelled Empire, Stage 2 / Coralie Legrand

The Remodelled Empire, Stage 3 / Coralie Legrand

Oceanic Decolonization

Using a fictional podcast interview for illustration, this scenario focuses on West Africa. Similarly set in 2045, it envisages a world in which a deadly confrontation on the ocean sparked a social movement made up of small-scale fishers from across the region, who joined together to push back against foreign over-exploitation of their waters. The scenario’s fictional interviewee, a former Liberian fisherman who became a figurehead of the movement, details how the judicial system was used to fight unfair agreements and reclaim local infrastructure and resources.

Oceanic Decolonization, Stage 1 / Design: Coralie Legrand

Oceanic Decolonization, Stage 2 / Coralie Legrand

Oceanic Decolonization, Stage 3 / Coralie Legrand

Oceanic Decolonization, Stage 4 / Coralie Legrand

Polar Renaissance

The final scenario takes place in 2060, a decade on from close call with outright conflict in the Arctic. While retreating sea ice at first brought new economic opportunities to many in the region, it also caused geopolitical tensions which threatened to spark military confrontation, avoided only by the bursting of the carbon bubble, which caused harsh economic impacts for both national governments and local Indigenous communities. However, the scenario also explores the following processes of regional reconciliation and climate reparations, in the form of a joint Arctic trust fund established by Norway, Canada and Sweden to support an Indigenous-led transformation in living conditions and future outlook for communities across the region.

Polar Renaissance, Stage 1 / Design: Coralie Legrand

Polar Renaissance, Stage 2 / Coralie Legrand

Polar Renaissance, Stage 3 / Coralie Legrand

There are a number of lessons to be taken from these scenarios, the authors conclude. In particular, they argue that these fishery conflicts do not have to be seen as singularly destructive. In fact, as emphasized in particular in the latter two scenarios, “low-intensity, non-escalatory conflict can be productive.”

Low-level fishery conflicts have helped to build institutional strength in the past, such as in the establishment of exclusive economic zones in the 1960s and 70s, and have the potential to bring about positive social outcomes by spurring public debate, emboldening social justice movements and encouraging greater cooperation.

It’s also important, the researchers argue, to avoid a siloed mentality when it comes to the stressors faced by each region. While the article categorizes some areas as having a greater number of conflict drivers, and therefore as being more vulnerable to an outbreak, the researchers stress that this doesn’t mean that more immediate attention must automatically be directed to those places alone.

Instead, recognizing common themes and recurring global trends could provide the best route forward in such a hyperconnected world, and Osborne sees the narrative scenarios approach as an effective way to do this: “As a process and a means of encouraging more positive interactions between participants, we hope it can provide a means by which actors with apparently competing interests can together see how their common futures interconnect.”

Video overview

Video: Stockholm Resilience Centre TV / YouTube. Design by Coralie Legrand.

Design and development by Soapbox.