There may be a lot of fish in the sea. But we didn’t know much about where the fish were, or who was fishing them.  

Now, by analyzing satellite data that looked at thousands of high-seas fishing vessels over four years, a study for the first time shines a spotlight on fishing’s scope and pattern around the world.

Scientists used ships’ own emergency beacons to pinpoint their locations and movements.

A key finding of the study said fishing affects more than 55% of the ocean’s surface — which is over four times the area covered by agriculture. Some parts of the world with poor satellite coverage were not visible. “The total area fished is likely higher,” possibly up to 73%, said the report.

Other findings from the study show that just five countries — China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea — account for 85% of fishing on the high seas. And by far, China does the most fishing of any nation on Earth.

The world’s hotspots for fishing include the Northeast Atlantic, Northwest Pacific, and some regions off South America and west Africa.

Additionally, the researchers noted more than 37 million hours of fishing in 2016 and found fishing vessels traveled more than 285 million miles that year alone, a distance to the moon and back 600 times.

“Most people will be surprised that until now, we didn’t really know where people were fishing in vast swaths of the ocean,” said study co-author Chris Costello, an economist at the University of California Santa Barbara. “This new real-time data set will be instrumental in designing improved management of the world’s oceans that is good for the fish, ecosystems and fishermen.”

Global fishing patterns are tied more to politics and culture than to climate change and fish migration: For instance, holidays had the greatest effect on fishing patterns in most of the world. Fishing tends to drop on holidays including Christmas, New Year’s and the Lunar New Year, researchers found.

State-imposed summertime fishing bans had the biggest impact on the movements of Chinese fleets.  

The data from the research is available online at “By publishing the data and analysis, we aim to increase transparency in the commercial fishing industry and improve opportunities for sustainable management,” said lead author David Kroodsma of Global Fishing Watch.

Study co-author Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Canada, said “the most mind-blowing thing is just how global an enterprise this is. It’s more like factories that are mass producing product for a global market and less like hunters that are stalking individual prey.”

The study was published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Science.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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