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; the Sea Around Us project at the University of British Columbia; and the University of Western Australia. The research, published today in the open-access journal Science 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.

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