Fish numbers are rapidly dwindling globally, and fishery subsidies are one of the key drivers behind this decline. In 2009, these subsidies totalled about US$35 billion, creating incentives for fishers around the world to increase their catch. But this short-term “race to fish” is jeopardising the long-term environmental, social, and economic security that fisheries offer us all.
My group at the University of British Columbia recently cast our net into the troubling waters of fishery subsidies, to see how this ship might be turned around.
Overfishing: a major issue facing our oceans
According to the recently released World Wildlife Fund Living Blue Planet Report, our oceans are in a bad state. Climate change, habitat destruction, and deep-sea mining are wreaking havoc on marine biodiversity.
But overfishing is in a league of its own.
The WWF report found that population numbers of utilised fish (those species used by humans for subsistence or commercial purposes) have fallen by half in the four decades from 1970 to 2010. A full 90% of fish stocks globally are now classified as either overexploited or fully exploited. Common seafood choices such as tuna, shrimp, whiting, and salmon are among the worst affected.
Only the very deepest parts of the oceans are currently safe from the pressure of fisheries. But how long this remains the case is yet to be seen. The demand for fish is growing the world over, driven by population growth, increased wealth, and the continued mass subsidisation of the fisheries industry.
Fishing subsidies are a global problem
The US$35 billion of subsidies that we estimate that were handed out globally in 2009 is not trivial. In fact, this figure constitutes between 30% and 40% of the landed values generated by marine fisheries worldwide.
To understand their full impact, though, it is useful to divide these subsidies into three broad categories:
- Subsidies for management and research – considered as “good” subsidies because they generally have a positive effect on our ability to manage fishery resources sustainably for the benefit of all generations.
- Capacity-enhancing (or harmful) subsidies – for example, construction and fuel; these tend to promote the overexploitation of fish stocks by motivating overcapacity and overfishing.
- Ambiguous subsidies – such as those to vessel buy-back programmes and rural fisher community development, can either promote or undermine the sustainability of fish stocks depending on how they are designed and implemented.
Our research found that capacity-enhancing, or harmful subsidies made up nearly 60% of the total; fuel subsidies alone (arguably the most capacity-enhancing) constituted about 22% of the total. Ports and harbours received a 10% share.
Meanwhile, subsidies provided for fishery management totalled only 20% globally. In Australia, we estimated these “good” subsidies similarly comprised about 29% of Australia’s total subsidies to fisheries.
Developed countries provided twice the amount of subsidies as developing countries, although the latter group lands about 80% of global fish catch.
In terms of national contributions, Japan provided the highest amount of subsidies (13% of the global total), followed closely by China (12.9%) and the United States (11.7%). Australia’s fishing subsidises came in at 1.4% of the global total.
The impacts of fishing subsidies
Although the direct impact of subsidies on fish resources depends on the health of the fish stock and the strength of management in place, fisheries management is rarely completely effective. In fact, there is evidence that subsidies alone can undermine efforts to manage stocks sustainably.
Commercial fishing enterprises are profit-driven, meaning the more profits that can be made the more fishing will typically take place. Because capacity-enhancing subsidies increase profits artificially, they are stimulating this “race to fish” within the industry. This is having disastrous consequences for many fish populations.
Fishery subsidies are also having socioeconomic, distributional, and trade impacts. They not only distort the market for fish, but often disadvantage fishers who receive relatively less subsidies.
In fact, most subsidies go to the large-scale industrial fishers in developed nations, rather than small-scale developing country fishers. This represents a barrier to development in precisely the regions where it is most needed.
What can be done about harmful subsidies?
Improving transparency is a fundamental requirement for reducing harmful fishing subsidies. Transparency around these subsidies could stimulate action, not only by revealing the scale of the problem, but also by providing a solid dataset that governments can use to implement reform. An important goal is to shift from “harmful” to “good” subsidies, which would go a long way to ensuring the money remains in fishing communities.
To make real progress in curtailing capacity-enhancing subsidies, it is important to develop and implement a multi-scale multi-stakeholder approach. Efforts must be made at the national, regional, and global levels of governance. Ultimately, these efforts should lead into a multilateral agreement at the World Trade Organization.
At the local level, we need to build political will to tackle the short-sightedness of our economic and political systems.
One step towards achieving this would be to develop a cadre of local opinion leaders who understand the benefits of eliminating capacity-enhancing subsidies. Supporting these domestic advocates for change could prove to be a crucial foundation stone for the building of a sustainable global fishery industry.