Fishy business of squid vessels needs stronger regulation, study says

Fishy business of squid vessels needs stronger regulation, study says

  • Experts are drawing attention to the unregulated nature of squid fishing, which they say could lead to the overexploitation of species, allow illegal fishing activity to flourish, and contribute to inequity.
  • New research suggests that squid fishing increased by 68% across the global oceans between 2017 and 2020, and that 86% took place in unregulated parts of the ocean.
  • China’s distant-water fishing fleet accounts for 92% of this tracked squid fishing activity.
  • Experts say that unregulated squid fishing needs to be addressed with better management, monitoring and transparency.

Squid fishing could be getting out of control due to the industry’s lack of regulations, scientists say, prompting calls for greater oversight.

Thousands of squid fishing vessels operate across the world, using light to lure the eight-armed cephalopods to the surface and catching them with nets or jigging equipment. While some research suggests that squid are globally abundant, other evidence suggests that overfishing is driving some populations to decline, including the jumbo flying squid (Dosidicus gigas) in the Southeast Pacific and the Argentine shortfin (Illex argentinus) in the Southwest Atlantic. Experts also say that most squid fishing takes place in unregulated areas in international waters, which has allowed the industry to operate without scrutiny.

In a new study published in Science Advances, researchers from Global Fishing Watch, the University of California, Santa Cruz, the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security at the University of Wollongong, and the Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency used satellite and vessel tracking data to study the movements of the squid fishing vessels. It found that squid fishing across the global oceans increased by 68% over three years (2017-2020), accounting for about 4.4 million total hours of fishing time. The study also indicated that 86% of this fishing occurred in unregulated areas, and that many of the vessels traveled long distances to operate in different regions.

“A major challenge with unregulated fisheries is that we don’t know what we don’t know — and the data to deeply understand questions about stock status and sustainable fishing are not there,” Katherine Seto, lead author of the study and an environmental studies scientist at UCSC, told Mongabay in an email. “However, we know that managers and scientists working with these squid stocks have shown increasing concern in recent years. We also know that where there are RFMOs [regional fisheries management organizations] relating to squid, we’re seeing increased effort and decreased catch per unit effort, suggesting these concerns are well founded.”

While unregulated fishing isn’t illegal, the authors say it’s still problematic since it can lead to the overexploitation of species and allow illegal activity, such as labor abuses, to flourish since unregulated fishing isn’t carefully watched.

Evidence suggests that overfishing is driving some squid populations to decline. NOAA photo by Christopher Hoefer

The authors say it can also exacerbate inequity for traditional and small-scale fishers in developing coastal states that depend on fishing revenue. That’s because large industrial squid fleets often fish in unregulated areas that directly border coastal states’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs), outcompeting the smaller fisheries for the same stock. For instance, a fleet of Chinese-owned fishing vessels fishes for squid each year close to Ecuador’s EEZ, near the Galápagos Islands, threatening the livelihoods of small-scale fishers operating within the EEZ. Experts have also raised concerns about this fleet going “dark” by turning off their GPS-based automatic identification systems (AIS), which may be a deliberate move to avoid detection while doing something illegal — like going into Ecuador’s EEZ without permission. Many of these same vessels are known to fish for squid just beyond Argentina’s EEZ, going dark for extended periods.

While the new study in Science Advances doesn’t evaluate the legality or illegality of this tracked squid fishing activity, Seto said it’s possible that some vessels were involved in illegal acts.

Study co-author Nathan Miller, a senior data scientist at Global Fishing Watch, a monitoring platform that provided data for the study, said that while he expected there to be growth in global squid fishing, he was surprised that most of this growth was focused in unregulated areas.

“It seems to suggest that fishing fleets are potentially taking advantage of this fragmented nature of our regulations,” Miller told Mongabay. “These vessels are also traveling long, long distances; they don’t just operate in one region, but many vessels operate throughout the year in many different regions.” Because of this, he said, there needs to be more transparency about this fishing activity and a coordinated effort to monitor it.

The study identifies China’s distant-water fishing fleet as making up the bulk of the squid fishing vessels examined in the study, accounting for 92% of all tracked fishing activity. In 2020, China reported catching more squid than tuna, constituting for 22.5% of the distant-water fleet’s total catch, with 520,300 metric tons of squid.

According to the study, other major squid fishing fleets come from South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

The study found that 86% of squid fishing between 2017 and 2020 occurred in unregulated areas. Image by Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd.

The researchers studied the global movements of 1,394 vessels using data from the vessels’ AIS systems, which publicly transmit the boat’s identity, speed and location, and from satellite technology called visible infrared imaging radiometer suite (VIIRS), which picks up the bright lights that most squid vessels use at night.

Argentine fishing expert Milko Schvartzman, who was not involved in the research, said the most worrying aspect of unregulated squid fishing is the lack of reporting on catches, which makes it “impossible to evaluate the population status, and the exploitation impacts” of this growing activity.

“Squid is at the core of the food web of marine ecosystems,” Schvartzman told Mongabay in a message, “it is [the] main food for many species, including marine mammals, fin fish species, and birds. Because of the furtive operation of this fleet, we are literally walking [with] blind eyes to the cliff.”

Schvartzman says the study provides a “global picture of squid jiggers’ behavior,” confirming what experts have long assumed about squid vessels preferring to operate in unregulated areas.

Seto recommended a number of solutions to manage the unregulated squid fishery: “creating or improving RFMOs regulations squid fisheries, increasing data sharing between national and international institutions that do address squid fisheries, addressing the political and economic drivers of concerning flag state fishing behaviors, and bringing both industry and civil society into the conversation.”

She added there are already increased efforts to regulate squid fishing within the EEZs of coastal states and RFMOs. Additionally, U.N. member states recently agreed on a high seas treaty that could provide a legal framework for protecting the ocean in areas beyond EEZs.

Seto said that while the high seas treaty isn’t designed to deal with fisheries management directly, it would defer such issues to existing institutions like RFMOs.

“It really underscores the importance of RFMOs in managing stocks,” she said, “and thus the major opportunity with the current lack of RFMO regulation of squid fisheries.”


Seto, K. L., Miller, N. A., Kroodsma, D., Hanich, Q., Miyahara, M., Saito, R., … Urrutia S., O. (2023). Fishing through the cracks: The unregulated nature of global squid fisheries. Science Advances, 9(10). doi:10.1126/sciadv.add8125

Doubleday, Z. A., Prowse, T. A., Arkhipkin, A., Pierce, G. J., Semmens, J., Steer, M., … Gillanders, B. M. (2016). Global proliferation of cephalopods. Current Biology, 26(10), R406-R407. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.04.002


This story first appeared on Mongabay

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