Blog Post

Most fishing on the high seas would be unprofitable at current rates without government subsidies, a new study reveals: Using satellite tracking, a team of researchers exposes the economic unprofitability of fishing the high seas and the industry’s dependence on government subsidies

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; theSea Around Usproject at the University of British Columbia; and the University of Western Australia. The research, published today in the open-access journalScience 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.

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.

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.

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.

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

The paper “The economics of fishing the high seas” is now online in Science Advances:

View Dr. Sala's remarks about this research from TED2018:

Back to Top
About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 15,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.