Is War Bad for Fish?

According to the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, several Libyan vessels, legally unauthorized to fish for the endangered bluefin tuna, have left Malta bound for Libyan waters. Their goal is to take advantage of the chaos in the country due to its civil war. The Libyan government is fighting for remaining in power, hence they probably are not paying much attention to fishing in their waters. That raises the question: is war bad for fish?

In 1924, Humberto D’Ancona, an Italian biologist who was studying fish populations in the Adriatic Sea, observed that, during World War I (when fishing was reduced for obvious reasons), the abundance of large predatory fish such as sharks and skates increased in the fishing catch. He concluded that the reduced fishing effort during the war allowed fish to recover from human exploitation. After the war, fishing intensified and these large fish were eliminated rapidly (see graph below).

The abundance of predatory fishes in the Adriatic increased during WWI (1914-1918); after the war, fishing resumed and predators were depleted. Data from Humberto D'Ancona (1924).


During the Sudan civil war of the 1980s fishing effort on Sudan’s Red Sea coast also declined, which allowed sharks and large groupers to remain abundant. Because of that, Sudan is now a prime tourist destination for adventurous divers.

However, the current events in Libya are not as beneficial for ocean life as other wars were. WWF and Greenpeace are now calling for a suspension of the 2011 fishing season, to prevent bluefin tuna caught illegally to enter the market. The bluefin tuna is in a historical low, and many scientists and conservationists have called for a 5-year moratorium to prevent the collapse of the species and the fishery it supports.

The wars of the past may have given fish a break, but in our present world, pressure is too strong and pirates try and take advantage of the lack of enforcement of national laws and international agreements. This is just a reminder that the environmental consequences of war should be considered in the planning for war-related humanitarian work. In the end, no fish means no food and no jobs for fishermen.


Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Marine ecologist Dr. Enric Sala is a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who combines science, exploration and media to help restore marine life. Sala’s scientific publications are used for conservation efforts such as the creation of marine protected areas. 2005 Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow, 2006 Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, 2008 Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum.