Fishing Subsidies And Global Inequality
Many countries use public money to subsidize the true costs of fishing, which can lead to risky practices. Such harmful subsidies can damage marine ecosystems and lead to illegal fishing, “overfishing,” and human rights violations, in poorer countries especially. In 2022, the World Trade Organization outlined provisions to restrict harmful fisheries subsidies, but some experts believe the restrictions haven’t been strong enough to curtail these negative impacts.
Countries that are the source of subsidies often direct funding toward fishing operations in foreign waters. Sometimes nations come to an agreement about this, but often the arrangement benefits the paying country more, while passing along the negative consequences to the country that needs the funding. This is a problem that highlights the inequitable distribution of benefits and harms from the practice of industrial fishing.
Fully understanding the impacts of harmful fisheries subsidies matters because many problems stem from industrial fishing, from biodiversity loss to human poverty and inequality. The authors of this study break down the global distribution of harmful fisheries subsidies, including the flow of subsidies between regions and the associated U.S. dollar amounts. They distinguish between sources and sinks, defining sources as nations that provide harmful subsidies and sinks as nations affected by those subsidies.
The authors used three existing data sets in their analysis. They emphasized the lack of transparency in the industry, meaning their results provide an incomplete picture of the scale of harmful subsidies. However, they adjusted for uncertainty in the results.
The authors found that the majority of harmful subsidies in 2018 came from nations defined as high or very high on the Human Development Index (HDI). But these nations were not impacted by all of the costs of those subsidies. For example, up to 37% of all harmful fishing subsidies in 2018 supported fishing in foreign nations, while as much as 7% went toward fishing in the high seas.
Nations with high or very high HDI scores were responsible for 83% of harmful subsidies in the data set, while they were affected by 75% of the global total. Meanwhile, low- and very low-HDI countries provided 16% of subsidies but were affected by 24%. Over 40% of the harmful subsidies impacting very low-HDI countries came from high- and very high-HDI countries in 2018. The authors pointed toward Asia, Europe, and North America as regions as major sources of subsidies, while Oceania and Africa were major sinks.
The distribution of “beneficial subsidies” was also out of balance (the authors defined these as subsidies meant to reverse some of the harms caused by exploitative fishing). Specifically, higher-HDI countries were the source of more harmful subsidies in foreign countries, even when they provided beneficial subsidies domestically. In other words, more developed countries tend to benefit from subsidized fishing outside of their home territory, while less-developed countries experience the ecological, economic, and social consequences to a greater extent.
The authors highlight the harm that these subsidies can cause for people in low-income countries that rely on fishing for nutrition, food security, and their livelihood. Fisheries subsidies exist within, and are shaped by, broader political and economic systems. The authors argue that the nations negatively impacted by these systems should have a say in determining a better path forward.
The authors conclude that harmful subsidies should not support fishing outside of a country’s jurisdiction, and that subsidizing nations should be required to manage the impacts of harmful subsidies wherever they operate. While it’s important to be sensitive to the needs of marginalized communities that rely on fishing for survival, advocates can use this data to call for an end to exploitative fishing subsidies. Instead, public funding can be directed toward protecting marine ecosystems and supporting countries who lose out on finances by ending their trade agreements.