Fighting over illegal fishing leads to armed conflict and death

Authorities destroyed at least 15 foreign fishing boats between July and October last year, as part of a task force operation to combat growing incursions.

“Our message to foreign anglers who choose to fish outside the rules is simple,” Border Force said in a statement last year. “We’ll intercept you, you’ll lose your prize, your gear, and maybe even your ship.”

The US Coast Guard has taken a much more low-key approach to disposing of Mexican fishing boats captured in US waters. At the South Padre Island station in Texas, 440 boats have been dismantled in the past five years, the Coast Guard said – their engines were crushed.

Both the Canadian Coast Guard and the European Union Fisheries Control Agency told the AP they had not rammed or fired at a foreign fishing vessel during that time. Yet Europe has not been immune to conflict, with news stories describing Romanian authorities shooting a Turkish boat suspected of illegal fishing, and Italian law enforcement chasing and shooting a boat of Tunisian fishing.

Quarrels at sea were common before the United Nations established a broader international agreement on maritime boundaries in 1982. The Americas were no exception.

In the late 1960s, an American tuna boat was hit by machine gun fire for fishing in economic waters claimed by Peru. The United States and Canada also argued for years over the right to fish around Georges Bank, a scallop-rich area between Nova Scotia and Maine, until the dispute was settled in court. internationally in 1984.

Some experts say climate change could be the next driver of armed conflict between nations over fishing.

Bergenas, who is working to predict upcoming fishing conflict zones, has his sights set on the Arctic and the tropical Pacific.

Melting polar ice could free up valuable fisheries for Russia, China and the United States, he said, and he expects Pacific tuna stocks to migrate east, leaving behind them poverty and fierce competition.

When the lines of demarcation between nations remain blurred or international relations are strained, fishing serves as an easy spark for conflict. Last year, Eritrean military forces opened fire on Yemeni fishermen near the Hanish Islands, reigniting a dispute over the disputed area that began decades ago. And off the Gaza Strip, Palestinian fishermen are in constant conflict with Israeli security forces.

The AP, drawing on data from the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, uncovered more than 300 incidents where Israeli authorities fired, damaged ships or fired water cannons at fishermen of Gaza over the past five years.

The strict control Israel maintains over Gaza’s borders means Palestinians are restricted to fishing in a narrow sliver of the Mediterranean Sea, and in times of war Israel has completely cut off access to the fishing zone. The Israel Defense Forces did not respond to AP requests for comment, but previously said the restrictions were a security measure aimed at preventing the militant group Hamas from launching attacks in Israel.

Nizar Ayyash, head of the Gaza fishermen’s union, told the AP that three fishermen have died from attacks in the past five years. The best fishing is bass, he said, but the stocks are mostly outside the permitted area.

Most shootings occur within 100-200 meters of fishing borders to the north and south, Ayyash said, although organizations like Gisha and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights have documented attacks well in areas where Gaza fishermen were allowed to work.

“Fishing has become a much more dangerous occupation and one that fewer people in Gaza can actually make a living out of because of problems accessing Gaza’s maritime space,” said Miriam Marmur, Gisha’s public advocacy director.

Violence between Sri Lanka and India persists despite the otherwise friendly relations between the countries. Many Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen share the same Tamil ethnicity and language, even though their countries are located across a narrow strip of ocean.

Still, Sri Lankan authorities say Indian trawlers pose a real threat to the country’s fishing industry. Sri Lanka has banned bottom trawling, a practice environmentalists say strips the sea of ​​fish and damages algae and coral reefs.

Bottom trawling “is bad enough,” said V. Vivekanandan, former head of the Federation of Fishermen’s Societies of South India. Later innovations are even worse, he said, allowing the nets to catch “every fish available in the sea”.

Decades of civil war in Sri Lanka allowed Indian crews to reap the benefits of fishing in the waters around the island without repercussions, but the end of the war in 2009 and the return of Sri Lankan fishermen to the sea have pushed fisheries disputes back into the limelight.

Deadly fights have broken out between competing boats even when national authorities are not present. Herman Kumara, head of Sri Lanka’s National Fisheries Solidarity Movement, said seven Sri Lankan fishermen died in clashes with Indian crews in 2019. Two more died this year.

Kumara wants to see even stricter enforcement and hopes for a dialogue with Indian fishermen.

“It’s already turned violent,” he said. Without intervention, he added, “this situation could explode”.

This story was supported by funding from the Walton Family Foundation and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Associated Press reporters Sam McNeil in Beijing, Victoria Milko in Jakarta, Bharatha Mallawarachi and Krishan Francis in Colombo, and Fares Akram in Ontario contributed to this report.