The Flying Fish Dispute

The Flying Fish Dispute was a dispute between the Caribbean nations of Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. The dispute was sparked by the changing migratory patterns of flying fish which saw this species move away from Barbados and into the waters of Trinidad and Tobago. As flying fish are massively important to both the economy and culture of Barbados this led to a significant disagreement between the nations which required the intervention of the international Permanent Court of Arbitration to resolve.

Flying fish

Flying fish are found in the tropical waters of the Caribbean.

Flying fish are not a single species of fish. Indeed there are over sixty separate species of flying fish throughout the world, with all living in tropical and sub-tropical waters around the equator. All are silvery in appearance and look somewhat similar to herrings with the addition of the large pectoral fins which act as wings. Flying fish fly (technically glide) by building up speed just below the surface of the water and then jumping out and using their adapted pectoral fins to glide. The can remain airborne for around thirty seconds and reach heights of five to six metres and cover distances of up to fifty metres before returning to the water. This ability is thought to be an adaptation to escape predators which include tuna, marlin, billfish, sharks, killer whales and dolphins.

Airbourne flying fish

A flying fish in the air.

Barbadians have fished for this species for several hundred years, meaning that the flying fish has become highly commercially important, and has also become intertwined with the island’s history, culture and way of life. Barbados is often refers to itself referred to in tourist literature as ‘The Land of the Flying Fish,’ while the nation’s national dish is cou cou and flying fish, and a flying fish features on the Barbadian one dollar coin. A number of sports teams are also take their names from this species. Clearly flying fish are important to Barbados not just economically in terms of employment and fishing jobs, but hold deep cultural significance to the nation.

Trouble started in the early 2000s when flying fish began to change their migratory patterns, meaning that they were becoming less common in Barbadian waters and increasingly moving several hundred miles southwards towards the nation of Trinidad and Tobago, possibly due to global warming or other aspects of climate change. With most of their small-scale fishing industry based around catching flying fish Barbadian fishermen had no choice other than to follow the flying fish into the territorial waters of Trinidad and Tobago, sparking the dispute.

Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago on map

Trouble flared when flying fish changed their migratory pattern and began to move southwards, out of Barbados waters and into the waters of Trinidad and Tobago.

The Barbadian fishermen argued that flying fish were so important to both their livelihoods and culture that they had the right to fish for them wherever they were, while the Trinidad and Tobago fishermen stated that the boundaries of their fisheries must be respected and the Barbadian fishermen had no right to fish within Trinidad and Tobago’s waters. Gerald Thompson, a legal officer at the Foreign Ministry of Trinidad and Tobago stated:

“The stocks [of flying fish] in Barbados waters have been grievously depleted, and we didn’t want a large number of vessels from the Barbados fleet, the largest in the region, descending on our waters.” [Source]

However, Barbadian fishermen hit back, claiming that flying fish were not important to the people of Trinidad and Tobago on either a cultural or economic basis and the fishermen of Trinidad and Tobago were opportunistically catching this species simply to sell back to the Barbadians. It was also pointed out that Trinidad and Tobago was a relatively rich nation, being the Caribbean’s leading producer of oil and gas, and therefore could not justify catching this species on an economic basis. Tensions were raised when the Trinidad and Tobago coast guard arrested two Barbadian fishermen who had encroached into waters near to Tobago to catch flying fish. The fishermen were fined and had their catch confiscated. This raised the stakes of the dispute considerably with Barbadian fishermen becoming furious that direct action was being taken to stop their fishermen catching flying fish.

Permanent Court of Arbitration

The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, The Netherlands.

If the dispute was allowed to drag on it could have caused serious implications for the fishermen of the two nations and possible knock-on implications for the lucrative tourist income of the region. For this reason both parties sought to settle the dispute through diplomatic means and took the dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague in the Netherlands. After reviewing the dispute the court ruled on a compromise decision. It was ruled that the exact lines of the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) of the two nations would be decided. Once this was established the Barbadian fishermen would have a limited right to access the waters of Trinidad and Tobago to catch flying fish. However, the Barbadian fishermen would be fishing in waters belonging to Trinidad and Tobago and the agreement must be acceptable to the government and fishermen of Trinidad and Tobago. While a compromise had been reached the agreement meant that both parties were able to claim some sort of victory, and both peace and fishing would be able to return to the waters of the Caribbean.

While the stand-off between these countries was never as tense as those between Britain and Iceland in the Cod Wars, or Canada and Spain in the Turbot War the dispute still showed how tensions can ratchet up over fishing rights. When a species is both culturally and economically important fishermen – and wider communities – will go to great lengths to protect and defend their rights to fish for these species. This dispute also shows risks of placing a great deal of importance on transient species which can move from one area to another. With climate change and the altering temperature of the world’s oceans we may see disputes like this becoming more common across the world.

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