Big Brother Is Watching: Satellites Used to Survey Fishing in High Seas

(Photo courtesy of Nathaniel Wilder)

(CN) — New research revealed Friday has shed new light on the companies around the world that carry out fishing operations in Earth’s most unregulated waters, as satellite data revealed their activities amid concerns of violations of labor and environmental laws and overfishing.

To help address these concerns, researchers published a study in the journal One Earth that brings to light a number of international companies that operate on the high seas, an effort that researchers say provides a new resource with which to gauge what exactly is happening in such unmonitored environments.

Jennifer Jacquet, associate professor at NYU’s Department of Environmental Studies and lead author of the study, said that the research is the first of its kind to promote this much-needed transparency in these critical areas.

“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,” Jacquet said in a statement. “By connecting those boats with specific companies, this study takes a first step in enhancing transparency — we now know a lot more about who is profiting from fish catches in the global commons.”

Despite the strict control that numerous nations exercise over much of the world’s seas and oceans, there are nonetheless great stretches of waters around the globe that remain ownerless. These waters, commonly referred to as high seas or international waters, are in fact so vast that they make up nearly two-thirds of Earth’s oceans and have become notorious throughout the years for their lack of oversight and regulations.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges associated with these high seas is commercial fishing. Because these waters fall outside national jurisdiction, they also fall outside many regulatory fishing standards, leaving many to grow concerned for the kind of potentially harmful fishing practices companies could be using in these largely uncontrolled waters.

Previous research efforts have in fact already detailed just how hazardous high seas fishing enterprises can be. Data collected from international waters throughout the years has pointed to severe population drops for many open-ocean species because of fishing activities, including steep declines among swordfish, marlin and even tuna populations.

While previous research efforts have been restricted to measuring data reported by individual countries on what kind of fish take is occurring on the high seas, Friday’s study was able to extend this reach by compiling fishing data from a myriad of sources. 

This included satellite data, information from environmental group Global Fishing Watch and even public databases like regional fisheries management organizations, which taken all together helped provide researchers a clearer picture on what corporate actors have been active around Earth’s many international waters.

After analyzing all these different data sets, researchers determined that 1,120 corporations controlled almost 2,500 high-seas fishing vessels in 2018 alone, a number that made up roughly two-thirds of all fishing activities in these unregulated waters.

While over a thousand different corporations may be active on the high seas, the bulk of the fishing activity is being carried out by just a fraction of them. Only around 100 companies of the 1,120, most of them based in either the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Taiwan, Russia, Spain, the Netherlands or South Korea, represented at least a third of all high-seas fishing activity researchers examined.

Rounding out the top ten of most active companies were a series of Chinese corporations and one U.S. corporation based out of Hawaii. Two other key figures in the top ten list were Sajo Group and Dongwon, two Korean companies that own the United States subsidiary Starkist, a popular tuna product company based out of Pittsburgh.

Jacquet said that as we look toward efforts to safeguard Earth’s precious underwater resources, what Friday’s research effort largely comes down to is accountability for those who do business among Earth’s most uncontrolled oceanic playground.

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

%d bloggers like this: