The competition for ocean resources is increasing rapidly as coastal nations expand their economies and the global population continues its growth towards eleven billion people by the end of the century.  More than three billion people already depend on fish for a critical portion of their daily protein intake and this number is expected to grow in the years to come, even as 90 percent of global fish stocks are already fished at or above sustainable levels.  This crush of supply and demand is a growing cause of instability in key regions of the globe including the western Pacific, the Gulf of Guinea, and the Arctic.  Conflicts in these regions have the potential to arise from and be exacerbated by resource competition.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is among the most common sources of such conflicts and may account for 30% of the global seafood trade.  IUU fishing is therefore both a significant barrier to sustainable resource management and a disruptor of legal fishing markets.  It is also often integrated and indistinguishable from trade in other illicit goods including drugs and weapons and has been associated with human trafficking and slavery.  Key actors include trans-national criminal networks but also states seeking to use fishing fleets and the seafood trade as expressions of soft power and as a means of gaining economic advantage in the maritime sector.

Compounding these disruptive forces is the continuing shift in marine ecosystems as a result of climate change.  These shifts include the opening of vast new areas of the Arctic to potential use, the degradation of coral reefs and other foundational ecosystems, and the continuing migration of marine species to new waters and regions of the globe.  Countering these challenges will require the development of new regional maritime security coalitions, novel detection and enforcement mechanisms, and support for sustainable development practices that stand in opposition to short term, exploitive investments.

In addition to fisheries conflicts, ongoing debates about access to oil and gas resources on the Arctic outer continental shelf and in disputed waters in the South China Sea have the potential to exacerbate existing political tensions.  On the high seas, the developing debate over management of sea bed mining and conserving biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) will serve as practical demonstrations of the ability of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and its subsidiary agreements to serve as effective modes of ocean governance.

The Stephenson Ocean Security Project is a new initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies that highlights global security challenges that arise from marine resource competition and promotes solutions that support sustainable development, coalition building, and the need for American leadership.

Key Issues

  • Identifying and predicting sources and locations of conflict over marine resources including fisheries, mineral rights, and territorial disputes;
  • Promoting and understanding the causes of these conflicts including ecosystem, demographic, and socioeconomic changes and their relationship to broader geopolitical and governance dynamics;
  • Exploring novel technological solutions for tracking and monitoring these conflicts; and
  • Demonstrating the critical links between law enforcement, maritime security, state security, and sustainable development.