New evidence suggests that at least 55 percent of the world’s oceans are now being fished by industrial vessels, while warning that the number could potentially be even higher. The statistic is one of the main results presented in a study spearheaded by Global Fishing Watch, in collaboration with scientists from across the US and Canada.

The overexploitation of the world’s fisheries is well documented, but new data has enabled the first comprehensive global analysis of fishing activity and effort. Findings show that the absolute footprint of industrial fishing is four times larger than that of agriculture, despite furnishing only 1.2 percent of total human caloric consumption.

Published last week in Science, the academic journal, the study examines the global reach of industrial fishing using satellite data from the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Automatic Identification System (AIS). The tracking system, mandated to assist in the prevention of collisions, frequently reports a vessel’s identity, position, and speed – information that is also recorded by satellite and land-based receivers. A recent expansion of AIS allowed the authors to analyse the activity of over 70,000 vessels from 2012 to 2016.

The detailed data on vessel identities also sheds light on the fishing activity of specific nations and, in particular, information on those nations fishing the high seas, as well as in countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs). While the data found most fishing concentrated in the latter, it found that five flag states – China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Spain – are responsible for over 85 percent of high seas fishing effort, with China alone accounting for 33 percent.

The data also breaks down the different types of fishing, such as with longline gear or purse seine nets. In addition, it examines how much fuel prices may affect the level of fishing activity, along with whether the use of fuel subsidies makes it harder to assess that relationship.

Despite the seemingly dire situation of the world’s oceans, experts say that the study provides some hope that a change of course is possible. Tracking vessels over time allowed the authors to uncover global patterns in activity levels throughout the year. They find that fishing activity has “a surprisingly low sensitivity to short-term economic and environmental variation,” and instead, responds strongly to “cultural and political events such as holidays and closures.”

Speaking to BBC News, lead author David Kroodsma concluded that, “because fishing is an industrial activity tied to politics and culture, this is actually a positive message because it shows we have a lot of human agency in the way we fish the oceans, and it’s entirely within our power to change things.”

Co-author Juan Mayorga added that “data of this detail gives governments, management bodies, and researchers the insights they need to make transparent and well-informed decisions to regulate fishing activities and reach conservation and sustainability goals.”

Addressing fisheries subsidies

The paper comes as world governments work towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which includes a goal specific to ocean conservation and preservation. Among the targets of this SDG is one which involves the WTO negotiations on disciplining harmful fisheries subsidies.

WTO members face a deadline of 2020 under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 14.6 for prohibiting subsidies contributing to overfishing and overcapacity, and for eliminating subsidies to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Hopes for a multilateral agreement at the WTO’s Eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11) last December were not met, with trade ministers instead adopting a brief decision on fisheries subsidies directing members to continue the negotiations “with a view to adopting” a deal by the next ministerial conference in 2019. (See Bridges Weekly, 14 December 2017)

Back in Geneva, fisheries negotiators have already met in the new year, but have debated whether the early months of 2018 should focus more on getting better data on different aspects of the fisheries talks, or to resume negotiations where they left off last year.

According to a Geneva trade official, the US has advocated getting better information on IUU vessels and operators, along with the state of overfished stocks, among other topics. China and Russia have similarly advocated for more technical research, while the EU and various others have pushed for moving ahead with negotiations.

Given the technical nature of fisheries management, along with political sensitivities, several areas of the WTO talks have proved challenging to advance. Key issues in the negotiations include disciplining subsidies to vessels engaged in IUU fishing, subsidies that target already-overfished stocks and subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and over-fishing, as well as how to incorporate special and differential treatment (S&DT) into an eventual agreement. (See Bridges Weekly, 30 November 2017)

The use of AIS data may have implications for the IUU fishing debate in particular, as members strive to agree on a method to identify, and subsequently discipline, subsidies to, IUU fishing vessels. This type of illegal fishing is a pervasive problem in global fisheries, with some estimates suggesting the value of lost catch is as high as US$23 billion per year. The central problem of how to identify vessels engaged in IUU fishing in different jurisdictions has been a challenging one to solve.

“It can be seen as one of the first instances of high-tech being turned against illegal fishing (until now, it was the pirates who used it),” David Pauly, an expert of fisheries based at the University of British Columbia, wrote in an email to The Washington Post regarding the study’s results. “What is new is that the [study] enables civil society to use satellites to monitor the activity of fishing vessels, and thus to fight against illegal fishing and to increase transparency.”

However, the study notes that while the IMO requires that all large, commercial vessels be equipped with the satellite trackers, vessels that do not want to broadcast their location, such as those engaged in IUU fishing, can disable their systems. This poses an opportunity for individual nations to improve their fisheries management efforts by requiring vessels of a certain size flying under their flag to use the trackers, as the United States and several other countries already do.

ICTSD reporting; “New maps show the utterly massive imprint of fishing on the world’s oceans,” THE WASHINGTON POST, 22 February 2018; “World’s fishing fleets mapped from orbit,” BBC, 23 February 2018; “Tracking Fishing from Space: The Global Footprint of Industrial Fishing Revealed,” GLOBAL FISHING WATCH, 22 February 2018.

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