Conservation news

Industrial fishing is dominated by just a few of the world’s wealthiest nations

Recent research found that, despite having expanded into 90 percent of the world’s oceans, the industrial fishing fleets of the top 20 fishing countries in the world are catching less than a third of the fish they hauled in prior to 1950.

Findings like these are increasingly calling into question the sustainability of how we exploit global fisheries even as the global human population continues to climb. The more humans there are on the planet, the more we will have to rely on fish as an important source of food — and there are already about 3.2 billion people who rely on fish for 20 percent or more of their animal protein, which has driven 33.1 percent of the world’s fisheries to be operated at “biologically unsustainable levels,” according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Another study, published earlier this month in the journal Science Advances, helps put a finer point on just why access to declining fisheries could be a major food issue going forward. The study, led by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) in the United States, shows that wealthy countries’ industrial fishing fleets don’t just dominate Earth’s oceans, they have a virtual monopoly on them, especially on the high seas.

The researchers found that vessels registered to wealthy countries are responsible for 78 percent of trackable industrial fishing in the waters of less-wealthy countries and a whopping 97 percent on the high seas, international waters that are outside of any one country’s jurisdiction. What’s more, just five higher-income countries dominate the vast majority of industrial fishing on the high seas.

6,500 semi-trucks could fit inside the net of a single large industrial fishing vessel’s trawl net. The researchers focused their analysis on industrial fisheries because of the massive scale of these fisheries. Industrial fisheries also control most of the world’s fish. Graphic courtesy of Douglas McCauley.

“Seafood keeps millions of people on our planet a hair’s breadth away from diseases associated with malnutrition,” Douglas McCauley, an assistant professor in UCSB’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology and co-lead author of the study, said in a statement. “This means that accurately describing these patterns by which seafood is shared matters as much for our own future as it matters for the future of fish.”

McCauley and team analyzed 22 billion data points from a tracking system that ships use to avoid collisions at sea known as the Automatic Identification System, or AIS for short. The data was processed using machine-learning algorithms by Global Fishing Watch, an NGO that tracks and shares global fishing data in near-real time. This allowed the researchers to determine the amount of industrial fishing done by vessels flagged to higher-income nations — a combination of the countries the World Bank categorizes as “high income” and “upper middle income” — and lower-income nations — the World Bank’s “lower middle income” and “low income” categories combined.

“Advanced machine learning techniques allow us to identify fishing behavior without needing an analyst to look at the tracks of every single vessel,” study co-author David Kroodsma of Global Fishing Watch said in a statement. “It would take an analyst years, if not decades, to make the same number of judgements about vessel behavior.”

The results of the team’s analysis show that the exploitation of global fisheries is highly unequal. Less than 3 percent of industrial fishing on the high seas is conducted by vessels flagged to lower-income nations. When it comes to national waters, or the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) that extend 200 nautical miles from all non-landlocked countries’ coastlines, vessels flagged to higher-income nations are just as dominant, making up some 97 percent of all industrial fishing effort tracked in 2016.

As might be expected, domestic fishing fleets dominate the national waters of wealthier countries, responsible for 89 percent of fishing efforts in the EEZs of higher-income nations and 93 percent in the EEZs of upper middle-income countries. Meanwhile, 84 percent of the industrial fishing effort in lower-income countries’ EEZs is done by vessels flagged to foreign countries — and 78 percent of those vessels are flagged to high- and upper middle-income nations.

Map via McCauley et al. (2018) doi:10.1126/sciadv.aau2161.

Five higher-income countries are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the industrial fishing effort on the high seas: China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Spain (in order of dominance). Just China and Taiwan together account for about 52 percent of industrial fishing tracked on the high seas, “which, by reference, is an amount approximately 12 and 27 times greater than the high seas fishing effort detected for the United States and Russia (two other large nations), respectively,” the researchers write in the study.

There are only two lower-income nations among the top 20 in terms of the amount of AIS-detectable industrial fishing on the high seas: Vanuatu and Ukraine. And even that may be a deceptive statistic, given that Vanuatu has an open vessel registry, meaning it is what is often referred to as a “flag of convenience” state, and many vessels controlled by higher-income foreign nations are reported to mask their activities by registering in Vanuatu.

China and Taiwan also account for 44 percent of foreign fishing vessels that operate in the EEZs of other countries. “We detected fishing effort from China alone in the marine waters of approximately 40% of all non-landlocked nations,” the researchers write. “China, Taiwan, and South Korea (from high to low) also carried out the highest amounts of foreign fishing effort recorded globally in lower-income EEZs, or approximately 63% of all such effort detected.”

This analysis is especially timely given that the UN is set to convene the first intergovernmental talks for a treaty to protect marine biodiversity and govern the high seas in September. The researchers say they plan to engage with the UN to make their data readily available. The available data on industrial fishing, McCauley and team suggest, is more detailed than for any other natural resource and can help inform decision-making around the design of the treaty

“We cannot track assets in mining or forestry with anywhere near the precision that we are now able to track fishing vessels,” McCauley said. “This is a game changer when it comes to empowering both international leaders and on-the-ground citizens to make intelligent decisions about how best to manage the future of their own marine resources.”

Trawling operations on the NOAA Ship Miller Freeman. Photo by Allen M. Shimada, NMFS/NOAA.


• McCauley, D. J., Jablonicky, C., Allison, E. H., Golden, C. D., Joyce, F. H., Mayorga, J., & Kroodsma, D. (2018). Wealthy countries dominate industrial fishing. Science advances, 4(8), eaau2161. doi:10.1126/sciadv.aau2161