The Problem Of Illegal Fishing

They were fishermen and supporters of their cause, furious that thousands of Indian vessels constantly enter Sri Lankan waters, taking away valuable sea cucumbers and prawns. Sri Lankan fishermen say it ruins their business and some have died in clashes with foreign crews.

Protesters demanded the government take action, despite the fact that the Sri Lankan navy has used force to protect its fishermen, destroying equipment on Indian boats, ramming fishing boats and, in at least one case, opening fire.

Five Indian fishermen were reportedly killed last year in clashes with the Navy, although Sri Lankan authorities deny killing or shooting the fishing boats. They assure that in the confrontations that took place, they were not the aggressors.


“The intensity (of the clashes) is increasing, the level of violence is increasing,” said N. Manoharan, who researches the conflict as director of Asian studies at Christ University in Bangalore, India.

The warnings and detentions, he said, have not stopped trawlers from continuing to enter Sri Lankan waters, in part because there is no longer as much fishing in Indian waters. “They are desperate and go there (Sri Lankan waters) and lose their lives.”

This nearly 1,000-kilometre (600-mile) stretch of Indian Ocean isn’t the only spot where tensions abound. Throughout the region, fishermen from India and Pakistan have constant border disputes. According to media reports, Pakistani authorities have fired at least twice at Indian boats in the past two years.

Around the world, from Sri Lanka to Argentina and the South China Sea, the oceans are the scene of clashes between countries over illegal fishing and overfishing, practices that deplete vulnerable food sources for billions of people.

Jessica Spijkers of Australia’s national science agency found an increase in conflicts associated with fishing when she studied a four-decade period ending in 2016.

An Associated Press study of data compiled by nongovernmental organizations, official statistics and news reports found more than 360 episodes in which government forces rammed or fired on foreign fishing boats, sometimes with deadly consequences.

In the same period, 850 foreign fishing vessels were confiscated and systematically destroyed or sunk.

The figures cover episodes that occurred on six continents and probably fall short, since there is no entity that keeps track of violent confrontations throughout the world. The AP analysis does not include routine warnings or arrests. Rather, he focused on the study of the escalation of violence around fishing.

Experts in the environment and national security say that countries that depend on fishing may see these conflicts worsen in the coming years. Industrial-caliber vessels are catching huge amounts of fish, and fleets from China and other nations are venturing into distant waters because theirs is empty of fish.

Fishing-related conflicts reveal that fishing and national security are increasingly intertwined. (PHOTO: AP)

The search for new fishing grounds coincides with climate change, which endangers life in the oceans, and aggravates the problems of countries that must feed ever larger populations.

“Everything is getting much worse,” said Johan Bergenas, an ocean expert at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), who was one of the first to warn of worsening conflicts associated with fishing five years ago.

“There are already armed conflicts and tensions stemming from competition in West Africa, the West Indian Ocean and in Latin America,” Bargenas said. “There are going to be armed clashes around these fish stocks all over the world,” he predicted.

In early February, the US Coast Guard cutter Stratton anchored off Fiji and received three local officials. For a week they toured the waters of the Fiji Islands in search of unauthorized fishing boats: They boarded eight boats and warned 22 for different violations.

Vilisoni Tarabe, of the WWF office in the Fijis, said that many fishing vessels catch more tuna and sharks than they report.

“We don’t always have the resources to monitor these fishing vessels,” he said.

The size of the oceans complicates the monitoring of fishing activity. Captain Stephen Adler, commander of the Stratton, speaks of “the tyranny of distance.”

The United States collaborates with 11 Pacific nations to monitor their waters, with the aim of preventing the fish from running out there. In 2020, the WWF for the first time said that illegal fishing was a greater danger than piracy, which could upset the world order.

“It’s incredibly important to make sure these regions remain stable,” said US Coast Guard Deputy Commander Kristen Caldwell, who leads the Pacific support effort.

The size of the oceans complicates the monitoring of fishing activity. (PHOTO: AP)

The joint surveillance responds in part to US concerns about China, which has the world’s largest fishing fleet and invested heavily in ports in Latin America and elsewhere. Hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels fish near South America, where the Argentine Navy fired twice at Chinese vessels in 2018 and 2019. Last year, the AP found that two dozen Chinese vessels were fishing near the Galapagos Islands and had a history of violations of workers’ rights, convictions for illegal fishing or indications of possibly violating maritime laws.

China and its neighbors in the South China Sea have a long history of disputes over fishing in territorial waters. There were conflicts between coastguards and foreign fishing vessels in the Parcel Islands, near Vietnam; in the Natuna Islands near Indonesia and in the Spratlys, west of the Philippines.

“It’s a tinderbox,” said Sally Yozell of the Stimson Center, a US national security think tank based in Washington.

Conflicts related to fishing reveal that fishing and national security are increasingly linked.

China “intimidates fishing vessels from other countries”

China has a fleet of fishing boats that can store weapons and water cannons, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CIS), which studies the fighting in the South China Sea, and the Center for Advanced Defense Studies. A separate fleet takes up positions near disputed waters with the Spratly Islands, in effect expanding the waters China controls.

None of those fleets catch anything, according to Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CEEI. They settle in the area and fulfill a rather political function.

“Nobody is crazy enough to try to board a Chinese ship surrounded by hundreds of ships, all much bigger than yours,” Poling said.

The US Coast Guard accused China of “aggressive behavior” designed to intimidate other countries’ fishing vessels in its waters and on the high seas.

Countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia try to deter illegal fishing by destroying confiscated boats with much publicity.

Indonesia has sunk more than 370 foreign fishing boats in the last five years, according to official data.

In other parts of the world, it is Indonesian vessels that end up sinking. Australia destroyed three late last year. Between July and April, the Australians sank at least 15 foreign vessels fishing illegally.

The US Coast Guard is much more tolerant of Mexican vessels seized in territorial waters. At its South Padre Island facility, it disabled 440 fishing boats by destroying their engines.

Some experts believe that climate change may spark more conflict. Bergenas estimates that the melting of the ice in the Arctic will free access to fishing vessels from Russia, China and the United States. He also forecasts that Pacific tuna will migrate east, exacerbating poverty and competition in the waters they leave.


Sam McNeil (Beijing), Victoria Milko (Jakarta), Bharatha Mallawarachi, Krishan Francis (Colombo, Sri Lanka), and Fares Akram (Ontario) contributed to this report.

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