Fishing the Line: Capturing Resources that Swim Across Boundaries

By Emily Cassidy, Amelia Snyder, and Kristine Lister from Resource Watch, and David Kroodsma, Global Fishing Watch

More than one billion people depend on fisheries and aquaculture as a primary source of protein. In many low-income countries, they also rely on fishing for income. While countries mostly fish within their own jurisdictions, according to data gathered by Global Fishing Watch, a handful of nations, mostly wealthy ones, fish extensively in the high seas, the international waters beyond 200 nautical miles of coastlines. These fleets often cluster right at the boundaries of some countries’ jurisdictions, harvesting fish that cross into international waters. This activity, known as “fishing the line,” is especially common along the boundaries of some poorer nations’ waters, and it may represent a transfer of resources from developing countries to wealthier ones.

Global Fishing Watch tracks commercial fishing activity around the world in near-real time. The organization is now providing this data on Resource Watch, allowing users to combine fishing data with 240 natural resource data sets to reveal new insights.

Fishing fleets traverse over half of the world’s oceans. Global Fishing Watch tracks ships and their countries of origin using automatic identification systems (AIS) from GPS-like trackers onboard fishing vessels. The Resource Watch team analyzed this data and the Maritime Boundaries data set to find where large fishing fleets may be “fishing the line” of lower-income countries. Of the 40 countries we analyzed, we found that China, Japan, Korea and Spain spend the most time in the high seas, and in some cases spend many hours fishing close to the border of lower-income countries’ jurisdictions (known as “Exclusive Economic Zones,” or EEZs).


Where Are Rich Nations Fishing?

More often than not, low-income countries are unable to take advantage of their own fish stocks to the extent that large fishing fleets can because they use smaller boats and don’t have access to specialized equipment, such as large fishing nets. They also might not have the boats or fuel needed to fish the full 200 nautical mile extent of their EEZ. This puts them at a disadvantage compared to larger countries that have industrial fishing fleets and governments subsidizing their fuel and labor.

Nine coastal countries in Africa—Democratic Republic of Congo, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Togo—have Gross Domestic Products (GDP) less than $1,700 per person. Fishing fleets from other continents spent 5,500 hours fishing along the edges (within 20 nautical miles) of these lower-income EEZs.

For example, Mozambique is one of the lowest-income countries in the world (GDP per capita was only $1,217 in 2016). Portugal and Japan’s fleets spent more than 400 hours within 20 nautical miles of Mozambique’s EEZ. Spain spent more than 800 hours fishing Mozambique’s line.

This isn’t a significant amount of time compared to rich nations’ total fishing hours. Spain, for example, fished for about 2.8 million hours in 2016, so the country’s vessels spent a small fraction of their time outside of Mozambique. But because fish know no boundaries, fishing along the lines of EEZs will affect fisheries within the borders of the EEZ. Fish that could be caught by Mozambique’s fleet could instead be caught by Spain’s.

On the other side of Africa, Japan spent more than 130 hours fishing within 20 nautical miles of the Democratic Republic of Congo and about 20 hours fishing the lines outside of Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau. These three African countries have average per capita GDPs of $1,300, whereas Japan’s GDP is $41,000 per capita.

In South America, Peru has a higher per capita GDP of $13,000, but a Chinese fleet of mostly squid fishing vessels spent a whopping 45,000 hours fishing the line along Peru’s EEZ in 2016. Peru does not permit industrial fishing vessels to target squid within their waters, reserving the right to fish squid to only artisanal vessels. As a result, the squid may not be fully exploited, and China may be taking advantage of this situation.

An End to Fishing the Line?

Research published in June 2018 found that fish caught on the high seas in 2014 totaled 4.4 million tons, with a total revenue (in US$) of $7.6 billion. Although that may sound like a lot of money, the research pointed out that these fishing fleets often travel long distances and don’t necessarily catch a lot of fish considering the time, fuel and human resources spent. Many countries are subsidizing fuel costs and employing cheap labor, or sometimes forced labor, to fish the high seas. Without these subsidies, about half of high seas fishing would not be profitable.

In September, the United Nations met to discuss limiting high seas fishing to protect fisheries from over-exploitation. UN delegates plan to develop by 2020 a legally binding treaty to protect marine life on the high seas.

Experts say that a UN treaty banning high-seas fishing would allow less-developed countries to have a fair share of fish stocks.

The health and resilience of the ocean relies on open data and dialogue. Decision makers especially need the best available data. We hope that sharing Global Fishing Watch data on Resource Watch will allow for transparency and better decision-making.

Explore Global Fishing Watch data by country on Resource Watch

Featured Creative Commons image from Joachim Müllerchen, Wikipedia

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