In 2020, there were about 4.1 million fishing vessels in the world. In the last two decades, the number of vessels has been declining, mainly due to fleet reduction programs implemented in Europe and China, the results of which were taken into account during the latest revision of the FAO fleet data.
In the period from 2015 to 2020, the size of the world fleet decreased by almost 10%, and in the period from 2019 to 2020 – by almost 4%. Asia has the largest fishing fleet, which in 2020 was estimated to number 2.68 million vessels, or about two-thirds of the total number of vessels in the world. Over the period from 2015 to 2020, this indicator decreased by 8%. Unlike other regions of the world, Africa's fleet has been increasing, and now it accounts for 23.5% of fishing vessels in the world, which is 10% more than in 2015. The share of North and South America currently accounts for less than 9% of the world fleet – this is 1.5% less than in 2015. Europe and Oceania, as before, account for 2% and less than 1% of the total number of ships in the world, respectively.
China has the world's largest fishing fleet, consisting of an estimated 564,000 vessels. Nevertheless, the Chinese fleet is shrinking, and since 2013, when it was 1,072,000 vessels, its number has decreased by about 47%. The European Union, whose fleet in 2020 numbered about 74,000 vessels, which is 28% less than in 2000.
FAO conducted a review of the technical and economic indicators of the world's largest marine fishing fleets belonging to 20 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America, where the most fish are caught. Financial, socio-economic and technical information was collected on 103 main segments of the fishing fleet, which includes about 240,000 fishing vessels. It is estimated that in 2016-2019, these fleets together accounted for 39% of the production of marine commercial fisheries. The analysis of vessel characteristics shows significant differences in the fishing potential of these segments at sea (in length and vessel capacity). The gross capacity of individual medium-sized vessels has increased in all segments. In addition, several fishing fleets in Asia have significantly increased the overall average length of the vessel and engine power. The age of semi-fishing and fishing vessels in North and South America, Africa and Europe as a whole is growing, while in most segments of the fishing fleet in Asia, vessels have been updated, which is explained by the rejuvenation of fleets in China, Bangladesh, India and Indonesia. Analysis of data on costs and revenues of 98 segments of the fleet showed that the main cost items are wages and operating costs. The highest rates of costs and revenues were recorded in the segments of seiners for purse seining and trawlers fishing for pelagic species.
The survey showed that investments in semi-commercial and commercial vessels and fishing operations are generally profitable and that marine fishing continues to be a promising economic activity from a financial point of view in all 20 countries included in the sample. Most of the fishing fleets studied received sufficient income to cover depreciation costs, interest payments, repayment of loans and provision of the necessary financial resources for reinvestment. Of the 97 fleet segments, mainly engaged in semi-commercial and commercial fishing, 92% reported positive net cash flow during the survey years from 2016 to 2019. Medium-sized fishing vessels in 73% of fleet segments had a net profit margin of 10% or more, and 88% reported positive results in terms of capital productivity due to positive indicators of income from fixed assets.
Indicators of pelagic trawlers and large and medium bottom trawls also indicate profitability or high profitability of fishing.
The fishing technologies used continue to change. A key factor in the technical development of semi-commercial fishing operations, vessels and fishing gear has become the need to reduce fuel costs and save energy. Other changes include a significant increase in fishing efficiency, a reduction in the impact of fishing on the environment, improved processing and improved product quality, as well as increased safety at sea and improved working conditions for fishermen on board. These changes, along with the general increase in prices for products from aquatic biological resources, successful fisheries management in a number of areas and increased efficiency of capacity management in Europe and North America, contributed to the achievement of positive financial and economic indicators of the main fishing fleets of the world in recent years, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are about 2.5 million vessels equipped with engines in the world – this is 62% of the world's fishing fleet. The distribution of these types of vessels is uneven: in 2020, almost three quarters (1.9 million) of all motor vessels in the world were located in Asia. The vast majority (about 97%) of non-motorized vessels are located in Asia and Africa (815,000 and 702,000). For the most part, these are vessels with a total length of less than 12 meters, although information in many country reports is still presented without classifying vessels by length, presence or absence of engine and type. It is important to note that many countries providing information in this form have the largest fishing fleets, which creates serious problems in terms of data completeness.
In 2020, approximately 81% of the world's motor fishing vessels classified by length had a length of less than 12 m; most of these vessels were deckless. The largest share of motor vessels on all continents is made up of small vessels. In absolute terms, Asia ranks first in terms of the number of small motor vessels, followed by North America, South America (especially Latin America and the Caribbean) and Africa. There are about 45,000 large vessels in the world with a length of 24 m or more and, as a rule, with a displacement of over 100 gross registered tons, which is less than 5% of the total number of motor fishing vessels. In 2020, the largest share of such vessels accounted for North and South America, Oceania and Asia. It should be noted once again that, although the number of large fishing vessels in the world is small, they account for about a third of the engine power of the world's fishing fleet.
Although small vessels predominate in the composition of the world fleet, the assessment of their number is particularly difficult. If, as a rule, licensing and registration requirements are imposed on industrial vessels, then such procedures are not so common for small vessels. In addition, small vessels are not always taken into account in national statistics, even in countries where appropriate registries exist. Another problem is related to the fleet operating in inland waters: data on it are often presented in insufficient volume and are not entered into local and national registers, which makes it difficult to break down and compare fleets operating at sea and in inland waters.
Information about vessels (which is most conveniently collected through registries) is extremely important for countries, as it allows them to estimate the size of their fleets and manage fisheries more efficiently; the collection of such data is an important first step towards the recognition and formalization of small-scale fisheries and its legal entity.