DURHAM, N.C. – Researchers have used automatic identification systems (AIS) satellite data and other spatial analysis tools to identify more than 1,000 companies that fish in the high seas—waters that lie outside national jurisdiction where fishing has raised fears about environmental and labor violations.

The team’s peer-reviewed study, published Dec. 18 in the journal One Earth, is the first to link specific companies to fishing activity in these largely unregulated waters.

"We were able to connect the dots between about 2,500 vessels that fished the high seas in 2018 and 1,120 corporations that own them. This information, which wasn’t publicly available before, lets us see who is profiting from the fishing activity and where they’re located,” said Gabrielle Carmine, a doctoral candidate at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, who was first author on the study.

"Earlier studies have shown that many publicly listed seafood corporations don't disclose where they're fishing to their investors. Our analysis puts what was previously opaque on full display," Carmine said.

The high seas account for 60% of the world’s oceans. Fish caught there by industrial fleets are destined mainly for high-end markets in the United States and Europe. Past assessments have shown that overfishing in these waters has led to ecosystem degradation and alarming declines in the abundance of many open-ocean species, including species of tuna, swordfish and marlin.

“There is a lot of concern about companies that operate on the high seas, simply because there they are beyond the reach of any nation’s laws and regulations,” said Jennifer Jacquet, associate professor of environmental studies at New York University, who was project lead on the study. “By connecting those boats with specific companies, this study takes a first step in enhancing transparency.”

By analyzing AIS satellite data of ships’ movements, made available by Global Fishing Watch, and data from other sources such as regional fisheries management organizations and open-source corporate shareholder information, the researchers were able to trace the ownership of nearly 2,500 fishing vessels operating in the high seas in 2018 back to 1,120 corporations. These vessels accounted for roughly two-thirds of fishing activity in the high seas that year.

Within this pool of corporations, 100 companies based in the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Taiwan, Russia, Spain, the Netherlands, and South Korea, among other nations, accounted for more than one-third of all fishing. The ten most active corporations included the South Korean companies Sajo Group and Dongwon, which owns the U.S. subsidiary Starkist, along with a handful of Chinese companies and one U.S. corporation based in Hawaii.

“These findings show where high seas fishing is concentrated and a new way to view responsibility since corporations are the ones directly profiting from fishing,” said Carmine.

She and her colleagues hope their study will inform discussions at the fourth United Nations Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, which is expected to be held sometime in 2021.

“These results provide a unique lens through which to view accountability for the use and protection of global ocean biodiversity,” said Jacquet.

“They also give us a much better sense of where gaps remain in our knowledge,” said Carmine, who, prior to coming to Duke’s Nicholas School to work with Professor Pat Halpin in the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab, worked with Jacquet as an undergraduate at NYU. “For example, we know far more about the high-seas trawling fleet than the longline fleet, and more about the Atlantic Ocean than the western tropical Pacific.”

Primary funding for the study came from the Pew Marine Conservation Fellowships program and National Geographic’s Pristine Seas program.

Co-authors were Juan Mayorga, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the National Geographic Society; Global Fishing Watch’s Nathan Miller and Jaeyoon Park; Patrick Halpin and Guillermo Ortuño Crespo of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment; Stockholm University’s Henrik Österblom; and Enric Sala, a marine ecologist for National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project.

CITATION: “Who is the High Seas Fishing Industry?”, G. Carmine, J. Mayorga, N.Miller, J. Park, P.N. Halpin, G. Ortuño Crespo, H. Osterblum, E. Sala and J. Jacquet; Dec. 18, 2020, One Earth, DOI: 10.1016/j.oneear.2020.11.017