Resources & Climate

Shining a Light: The Need for Transparency across Distant Water Fishing

Despite its importance to international trade and economics, the industry largely remains a mystery.
in Program

Commercial fishing is big business, with a complex global seafood supply chain and over 56 million people working on vessels to support it. In the past several decades distant water fishing (DWF) has expanded its size and reach across the ocean and around the world. Despite its importance to international trade and economics, the industry largely remains a mystery. It is shrouded in an opaque operating system that limits information about where vessels operate, who owns them, the amount of fish that is caught, how fish is shipped and transshipped to market, the human labor practices onboard, and the access arrangements to other nations’ waters. This lack of transparency is accompanied by a dearth of research and data regarding the scale of the industry, the motivations of its proprietors, and the impact these fishing practices are having on coastal countries and marine fisheries. The clandestine nature of the industry has led to illicit activities and increased illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, all of which threaten the long term sustainability of global fisheries.

This report identifies the top DWF fleets in the world, where they operate, their motivations and economic impact, and their connections to IUU fishing and illicit activity. Specifically, the Stimson research team analyzed automatic identification system (AIS) data to determine the top ten DWF fleets and the top 20 countries where they operated from 2015 to 2017. The report further illuminates the top five DWF fleets, which account for nearly 90 percent of DWF efforts. China and Taiwan represented nearly 60 percent of all global DWF effort in other countries’ waters from 2015 to 2017, with Japan, South Korea, and Spain each representing about 10 percent of the DWF fishing effort. These vessels primarily fish in three regions: the Pacific, East Africa, and West Africa, with Kiribati, Seychelles, and Guinea-Bissau receiving the highest numbers of DWF vessels in their exclusive economic zones (EEZ) within each region, respectively.

The report finds that DWF fleets are driven by three primary factors: economics, the degree of governance and enforcement capacity, and political influence. Economic incentives in the form of subsidies, the market value of the fish type, and the proximity of various fisheries to markets all drive the actions of DWF fleets. In addition, DWF vessels are more likely to engage in coastal countries where governance enforcement capacity is low, increasing the risk that a DWF vessel will engage in IUU fishing in a developing coastal nation’s EEZ. Finally, quid pro quo deals and a lack of transparency regarding access agreement between coastal nations and DWF fleets has led to accusations of corruption.

Overall this incentive structure paints a picture of exploitation of coastal nations’ resources, with these countries experiencing negligible short-term gains at the cost of long-term marine destruction. Evidence from the two case studies in this report – Seychelles and Mauritius – support this view, that a lack of capacity, IUU fishing, and the perception of corruption lead to overexploitation of fisheries.

Ultimately, this report argues the current fishing industry is unsustainable. The challenges that DWF fleets pose to coastal countries’ resources and the fishing industry, particularly the expanding Chinese fleet, will persist unless there is a significant global shift towards sustained fisheries management. This challenge is rooted in the low level of transparency that persists across the industry, including intentionally ambiguous reporting by DWF fleets – little to no insight into vessel ownership, the conditions aboard such ships, or access agreements – and the significant gap in understanding the movement and extent of DWF fleets and support vessels due to AIS and Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) technology not being mandated abroad these vessels. The international community, DWF states, coastal nations, and the industry itself must improve transparency and accountability for DWF fleets while taking the necessary steps to safeguard global fisheries for future generations. Without such improvements, over-utilization of fishery resources will continue unabated, with devastating consequences for the security of our oceans.

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