This editorial originally appeared in Bloomberg News.
As China, Russia and the U.S. ramp up their naval deployments, there's no shortage of conflicts waiting to happen in the world's oceans. Yet the most immediate cause for concern is something more mundane than great-power rivalries. Pay closer attention to fish.
Seafood is the main source of protein for 3 billion people worldwide, and the industry employs more than 55 million workers. But with 90 percent of fish stocks now fully depleted or overfished and the world's reefs dying, fleets are increasingly operating illegally in other countries' exclusive waters and in areas of the high seas protected by international agreements. Experts believe at least 20 percent of the global harvest comes from this "illegal, unreported and unregulated" fishing, which brings in an estimated $15.5 billion to $36 billion a year.
Failing fisheries will lead to shortages of food and large movements of population — fueling war, crime and terrorist recruiting. Unlawful fishing has increased tensions between nations from the South China Sea to the Bay of Bengal to the Patagonian coast and beyond. Many illegal fishing operations are run by criminal organizations that enslave their crews and use the ships for human trafficking; hostage-taking; piracy; and transporting drugs, weapons and so-called blood diamonds. Iranian fishing boats, for example, have been caught trying to smuggle arms to Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the Pakistani terrorists who carried out the bloody attack on Mumbai in 2008 entered India in a hijacked fishing boat.
In short, illegal fishing needs to be taken seriously as a global security threat.
Governments are doing too little to fight it — and some are actually encouraging it. The most notorious violator is China, the largest consumer and exporter of seafood. Beijing offers subsidies to deep-water operators, and its coast guard accompanies fleets when they violate neighbors' exclusive economic zones. Indonesia has blown up hundreds of Chinese boats in its waters, while nations across the globe accuse Chinese fishermen of raiding their local fisheries.
But China certainly isn't the only rule-breaker. The U.S. has accused Central and South American countries of illegal fishing, and nongovernmental groups have documented infractions by European countries including Italy and Spain.
In the short term, the U.S. should step up efforts by its Navy, Coast Guard, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to use their sophisticated sensors and satellites to track down fishing ships operating without required transponders.
But the key to end the pillaging of the oceans is transparency. Governments and agencies already collect tons of data, but they share it poorly and keep much of it private. Global corporations including Google are helping nongovernmental groups track and visualize data that's posted on the internet. The aim is to let customers see what has been legally caught and what hasn't, so that market pressure can do its work.
That could amount to something, but it's by no means enough. Governments should comply more fully with the many treaties on oceanic resources they've already signed. For instance, more than 50 countries have signed a pact to better manage their ports by denying entry to boats that can't document their catches; enforcement at major ports has been pretty good, but illegal fisherman head to smaller ones that still lack monitoring.
Data, closer cooperation and stronger enforcement will all be needed to crack this problem. If it remains unsolved, the harm will be far greater than you might think.