How might a voyage into the future inform fisheries management and governance in the present? Pressures like climate change and ever-intensifying human activity can have a dramatic impact on marine ecosystems. These pressures are projected to amplify fishery conflicts, disputes that threaten ecosystems, livelihoods, and ocean security.
“It’s important to gain a deeper understanding of what such conflicts look like and how they might unfold in the future,” said Jessica Spijkers, a former cotutelle Ph.D. student with the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. “That way, we can better anticipate, rather than merely react to unfolding crises.”
Spijkers is the lead author of a recent OneEarth paper, which took a creative narrative approach to explore future fishery conflict scenarios in four regions of the world — the North-East Atlantic, the East China Sea, the coast of West Africa, and the Arctic. The international team of researchers, including deputy director Elizabeth Selig and lead scientist Colette Wabnitz, identified 22 economic, social, political, and environmental drivers and conditions for fishery conflicts while turning forward the clock to a world from 2030 to 2060.
“Understanding what drives conflict can help to identify pathways to resolution,” said Selig. “Consensus on how to manage resources together is the foundation for building sustainable fisheries and ocean ecosystems, a key aim of COS work.”
“The most fun and surprising part for me was to use stories to engage with regional experts and experience how scenarios can drive discussion, exploration and creative future thinking,” explained Spijkers.
After identifying regions and drivers of conflicts, the team developed creative visual stories with characters and plotlines. The storylines shifted based on factors like increases or decreases in nationalism and regionalism, human population growth and migration, ethnic tensions, extractive activities, and fish stock status. Regional experts then provided feedback and alternative scenarios to emphasize the uncertainty and complexity that comes with the unfolding of fishery conflicts.
“These exploratory scenarios are an incredibly powerful tool,” said Wabnitz. “They allow us to develop storylines that are solidly anchored in science while being really imaginative. This creativity presents a unique way to engage with a wide audience to overcome the challenges we face and galvanize the change we need.”
In the Arctic, for example, the team highlighted a 2060 “polar renaissance” scenario, built on the conflict and resolution of climate, economic and political tensions. In the scenario, climate change amplified an unequal distribution of benefits in the region, which sparked conflict among Arctic actors. However, region-wide climate reparations supported a transformation toward a more cooperative and just future. Still, the pathway was uncertain. As the researchers noted, unresolved disputes over the Arctic straits or a major oil spill might lead to different conflict trajectories.
“The use of the work lies in the process of building the scenarios and the questions it sparks: how can we move away from undesirable scenarios and what’s our toolkit to do so?” said Spijkers.
This effort emphasizes storytelling as a tool in the toolkit for understanding fishery conflicts. Along with modeling approaches, narrative building can inform policymakers by showcasing possible futures and highlighting the importance of decisions in the present.