Up to 54 per cent of the high seas fishing industry would be unprofitable without large government subsidies, according to a global research collaboration including The University of Western Australia.
The study was published in Science Advances by an international team of researchers that included the Sea Around Us research initiative at the University of British Columbia and UWA, the National Geographic Society, the University of California, Santa Barbara and Global Fishing Watch.
The team found that the global cost of fishing in the high seas ranged between $6.2 billion and $8 billion in 2014. Financial results from this activity ranged between a loss of $364 million and a profit of $1.4 billion.
The high seas - marine waters beyond national jurisdiction - cover 64 per cent of the ocean’s surface and are dominated by a small number of fishing countries, which reap most of the benefits of fishing the 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.
Using Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) and Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS), the researchers were able to track the individual behaviour, fishing activity and other characteristics of 3,620 high seas vessels in near-real time.
Combining this information with the global catch data from the Sea Around Us, the team was then able to determine how much effort the vessels put in, how large their catch was, and how much profit the catch generated.
The researchers estimated that fishing is taking place for almost 10 million hours each year across 132 million square kilometres (57 percent) of the high seas. Overall, catches range around 4.4 million tonnes a year.
They identified fishing hotspots near Peru, Argentina, and Japan, which were dominated by Chinese, Taiwanese and South Korean squid fishing fleets and revealed that in many parts of the high seas, government subsidies are propping up fishing activity to levels far beyond what would otherwise be economically rational.
The research suggests that through targeted subsidy reforms, governments could save taxpayers money, rebuild fish stocks, and eventually lead to higher value, lower volume fisheries.
Professor Dirk Zeller from UWA’s School of Biological Sciences and the Sea Around Us – Indian Ocean said that in many locations, the current level of fishing pressure is much higher than thought, is depleting fish stocks and is not economically rational.
“Some high sea fisheries, such as those exploited by China and Taiwan, are profitable only after assuming government subsidies and low labour costs,” he said.
The paper also suggested individual fishing companies caught more than they report to fisheries agencies, making more money than they claim while still pushing governments for subsidies.
Jess Reid (UWA Media and PR Advisor) (+61 8) 6488 6876