Study on economics of fishing on the high seas

June 6, 2018, National Geographic Society
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

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," said Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and lead author of the study.

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," said Juan Mayorga, marine data scientist for Pristine Seas.

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 reforms, we could save taxpayers money, rebuild stocks, and eventually lead to higher value, lower volume fisheries," said Christopher Costello.

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," said Sala, founder and leader of National Geographic's Pristine Seas project.

Furthermore, the research finds that beyond subsidies, unfair labor compensation or no compensation at all are key cost-reducing factors in long-distance fishing.

Explore further: Researchers track commercial fishing worldwide in near real-time

More information: E. Sala el al., "The economics of fishing the high seas," Science Advances (2018). advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/6/eaat2504

Related Stories

Recommended for you

In colliding galaxies, a pipsqueak shines bright

February 20, 2019

In the nearby Whirlpool galaxy and its companion galaxy, M51b, two supermassive black holes heat up and devour surrounding material. These two monsters should be the most luminous X-ray sources in sight, but a new study using ...

When does one of the central ideas in economics work?

February 20, 2019

The concept of equilibrium is one of the most central ideas in economics. It is one of the core assumptions in the vast majority of economic models, including models used by policymakers on issues ranging from monetary policy ...

Research reveals why the zebra got its stripes

February 20, 2019

Why do zebras have stripes? A study published in PLOS ONE today takes us another step closer to answering this puzzling question and to understanding how stripes actually work.

Correlated nucleons may solve 35-year-old mystery

February 20, 2019

A careful re-analysis of data taken at the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility has revealed a possible link between correlated protons and neutrons in the nucleus and a 35-year-old mystery. ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

betterexists
1 / 5 (1) Jun 06, 2018
54% of the high seas fishing industry would be unprofitable at its current scale?
ONLY SOLUTION is TO KILL ALL OF These Useless Animals :-- ALL WHALES (Killer Whales live upto 29 yrs, Humpback whales, 45 – 50 yrs), Crocodiles (70 yrs) AND BIRDS that Hover over Sea Water !
WHY ? They Consume Awful lot of Fish needed by us ! WE NEED NOT KEEP THE NATURE as it was, Since We have Grown up ! Tend to Atmospheric Pollution, but NOT to DUMB ANIMALS !

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.