Five nations take the lion’s share of the world’s fish


Tracking data reveals that global fishing is deeply inequitable, raising fears for food security. Geetanjali Rangnekar reports.


A handful of countries account for almost all of the world's fish catch, research shows.
A handful of countries account for almost all of the world's fish catch, research shows.
Jeffrey Rotman / Getty Images

Just five nations — China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Spain — are responsible for 86% of the global fishing haul, new research shows.

An intensive study of tracking data from fishing vessels has revealed that those belonging to wealthier nations dominate the catch not only in international waters, but also in the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of poorer nations.

The findings questions about the control and distribution of the global fishing catch, and could have long-term repercussions for food security and nutritional health.

A team of researchers led by Douglas J McCauley from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the US, used data gleaned from over 20 billion automatic identification systems (AIS) – devices used to track ship movements – to determine the pattern and scale of industrial fishing efforts in both international waters and in the EEZs.

International waters constitute the vast marine expanse outside the jurisdiction of any country, the resources of which are meant to be managed and shared cooperatively. Marine resources contained within EEZs come under the control of specific countries.

Using information collected in 2015 and 2016, the authors found that in international waters, most of the industrial fishing effort was carried out by vessels belonging to high-income countries. Vessels from lower-income countries were responsible for a mere 3% of activity.

This difference was consistent across both years studied, and present in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian ocean regions. It also held true for both large and small-sized industrial vessels.

High-income countries held fast to this dominance within their own EEZs. They were also responsible for 93% of fishing activity in the EEZs of upper middle-income countries, and 78% in those of low-income countries.

After corroborating their AIS-derived data with vessel monitoring and catch estimate measures obtained from independent sources, the ascendancy of high-income countries persisted across the board.

A 2017 study revealed that 845 million people are at risk of nutritional deficiency if plummeting fish stocks continue to be concentrated in the hands of wealthy nations.

There is also the inherent danger that industrial fisheries of high-income foreign nations could adversely affect the long-term sustainability of local artisanal fisheries, which are known to employ a considerably higher number of people and be more ecologically conscientious, while producing an equivalent amount of usable catch.

The latest study is published in the journal Science Advances.

  1. https://www.nature.com/news/nutrition-fall-in-fish-catch-threatens-human-health-1.20074
  2. https://nyuscholars.nyu.edu/en/publications/funding-priorities-big-barriers-to-small-scale-fisheries
  3. http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/8/eaau2161
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