Most fishing on the high seas would be unprofitable at current rates without government subsidies, a new study reveals
Using satellite tracking, a team of researchers exposes the economic unprofitability of fishing the high seas and the industry’s dependence on government subsidies
As much as 54 percent of the high seas fishing industry would be unprofitable at its current scale without large government subsidies, according to a new study by researchers from the National Geographic Society; the University of California, Santa Barbara; Global Fishing Watch; the Sea Around Us project at the University of British Columbia; and the University of Western Australia. The research, published today in the open-access journal Science Advances, found that the global cost of fishing in the high seas ranged between $6.2 billion and $8 billion USD in 2014. Profits from this activity range between a loss of $364 million and a profit of $1.4 billion USD.
The high seas — marine waters beyond national jurisdiction — cover 64 percent of the ocean’s surface and are dominated by a small number of fishing countries, which reap most of the benefits of fishing this internationally shared area. While the environmental impacts of fishing on the high seas are well studied, a high level of secrecy around distant-water fishing had previously precluded reliable estimates of the economic costs and benefits of high seas fishing. However, newly compiled satellite data and machine learning have revealed a far more accurate picture of fishing effort across the globe at the level of individual vessels.
The reason most fleets continue to operate in the high seas is that they receive government subsidies. Without subsidies and the forced labor some of them are known for, fishing would be unprofitable in over half of the high seas fishing grounds.
Using Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) and Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS), the researchers were able to track the individual behavior, fishing activity and other characteristics of 3,620 vessels in near-real time. Combining this information with the global catch data from the University of British Columbia’s Sea Around Us project, the team was then able to determine how much effort the vessels expended, how large their catch was, and how much profit the catch generated.
Satellite technology, computing power, and machine learning are rapidly transforming our ability to monitor and understand human activity at sea. This unprecedented level of transparency provided by Global Fishing Watch not only creates new research avenues but, more importantly, opens the door to exciting opportunities to improve how we manage and protect our oceans.
The researchers estimated that fishing is taking place for almost 10 million hours each year across 132 million square kilometers (57 percent) of the high seas. They identified fishing hotspots near Peru, Argentina, and Japan, which were dominated by Chinese, Taiwanese and South Korean squid fishing fleets. Deep-sea bottom trawling in the northwest Atlantic between the United States and Canada off Georges Bank and in the northeast Atlantic is also prevalent, as are activities by tuna fleets in the central and western Pacific. Overall, catches range around 4.4 million tons a year.
In many parts of the high seas, subsidies are propping up fishing activity to levels far beyond what would otherwise be economically rational. This implies that through targeted subsidy reforms, we could save taxpayers money, rebuild fish stocks, and eventually lead to higher value, lower volume fisheries.
The paper also hints at the possibility of individual fishing companies catching more than they report to fisheries agencies, hence making more money than they claim while still pushing governments for subsidies.
Even though some high seas fisheries are profitable, squid fishing and deep bottom trawling would not make sense without the subsidies. Governments are throwing massive amounts of taxpayer money into a destructive industry.
Furthermore, the research finds that beyond subsidies, unfair labor compensation or no compensation at all are key cost-reducing factors in long-distance fishing.
The paper “The economics of fishing the high seas” is now online in Science Advances: http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/6/eaat2504
View Dr. Sala's remarks about this research from TED2018: go.ted.com/enricsala
The National Geographic Society is a leading nonprofit that invests in bold people and transformative ideas in the fields of exploration, scientific research, storytelling and education. The Society aspires to create a community of change, advancing key insights about the planet and probing some of the most pressing scientific questions of our time, all while ensuring that the next generation is armed with geographic knowledge and global understanding. Its goal is measurable impact: furthering exploration and educating people around the world to inspire solutions for the greater good. For more information, visit www.nationalgeographic.org.
National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala launched the Pristine Seas project in 2008 to explore and help protect the last wild places in the ocean. For more information, visit https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/pristine-seas/
About the Sustainable Fisheries Group at the University of California, Santa Barbara
The Sustainable Fisheries Group (SFG), founded in 2006 by marine ecologist Steve Gaines and economist Chris Costello, is a collaboration between the Marine Science Institute and the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. SFG develops innovative science and applies it to real-world challenges to improve the sustainability of marine resources and coastal communities around the world. SFG uses diverse market approaches, bioeconomic modeling, spatial analysis, and big data techniques to improve the ecological and economic performance of fisheries and other ocean uses. For more information, visit http://sfg.msi.ucsb.edu/
About Global Fishing Watch
Global Fishing Watch (GFW) is an international non-profit organisation committed to advancing the sustainability of our oceans through increased transparency. By harnessing cutting edge technology, our mapping platform allows anyone to view or download data and investigate global fishing activity in near real-time, for free. GFW was founded in 2015 through a collaboration between Oceana, SkyTruth and Google. Our work is made possible thanks to the support of our funding partners and technology and data providers. For more information, visit http://globalfishingwatch.org
About the Sea Around Us project at the University of British Columbia
The Sea Around Us is a research initiative at the University of British Columbia and the University of Western Australia. The program assesses the impact of fisheries on the marine ecosystems of the world and offers mitigating solutions to a range of stakeholders. The Sea Around Us provides data and analyses through Tools and Data, peer-reviewed journal articles, and a News section. For more information, visit http://www.seaaroundus.org/