Fishing Subsidies: More Harmful Than Helpful?
Subsidies can be defined as any financial contribution given by a government or public entity to benefit an industry, such as agriculture or fisheries. Such finances can involve grants and equities, but they can also be loan guarantees, incentives, or the purchase of excess goods. People who advocate for subsidies claim that they keep costs low and support local economies.
Fishing subsidies cause problems when they equip fishing fleets to catch more fish than is sustainable in the long run, which can deplete fish populations and revenues. Large fishing fleets from a handful of nations also use such subsidies to not only fish locally (domestic fishing) but to operate further away from their coastal boundaries. Subsidies provide the infrastructure and support needed for large fleets to fish in the coastal waters of other low-income countries as part of fishing access agreements (distant-water fishing) and on international seas available to all fleets (high-seas fishing). Both distant-water fishing and high-seas fishing are known to drive “overfishing” as well as illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing activities. Because of this, any subsidies that artificially increase fishing revenues and allow nations to fish beyond sustainable limits are called “harmful fishing subsidies.”
By studying available data from the last two decades, researchers analyzed the role of harmful subsidies in three sectors: domestic fishing, distant-water fishing, and high-seas fishing. The study also listed the top ten countries that provide harmful fishing subsidies and the parts of the ocean that suffer the most because of such harmful subsidies.
Results of the study indicate that the top ten countries that provided harmful subsidies worth $15.3 billion are China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, the U.S., Thailand, Taiwan, Spain, Indonesia, and Norway. While Taiwan ($252 million) topped the list of nations that provided the maximum number of harmful subsidies for high-seas fishing, China heads the list of nations providing harmful subsidies for domestic ($2.909 billion) and distant-sea fishing ($2.925 billion).
Fuel subsidies are the most common type of harmful fishing subsidies, but other types include tax exemptions, port development, and infrastructure improvements. The authors point out how local subsidies offered by governments can drive overcapacity, overfishing, and illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing activities. For example, the top ten subsidizing countries collectively caught over 47 million tonnes of “seafood” in 2016, but only around 39 million tonnes were officially reported. 68% of this total was caught domestically, while 29% was from distant-water fishing and 3% from high-sea fishing. .
As there are global consequences that result from subsidies provided by local governments, this study reiterates why harmful fishing subsidies cannot be treated as a domestic issue, one which can be resolved within national boundaries. This is further emphasized by the authors’ finding that there is a link between harmful fishing subsidies and distant-water fishing, with more subsidies linked to higher amounts of distant-water catches. As a result, the majority of harmful subsidies are impacting the oceans of other countries, rather than domestic ocean zones.
In general, there is a lack of data and transparency in the international fisheries trade. Aid offered by developed countries in exchange for access to the coastal waters in low-income, developing nations also discourages transparency in fishing access agreements. As the authors of the study point out, such agreements are often not in the best interest of local people in low-income countries as seen by the economic losses that have occurred in countries in the southern hemisphere.
Fishing subsidies in their current form will hinder our ability to achieve global sustainability goals such as securing livelihoods, reducing poverty, and providing nutritious food. As early as 2001, the World Trade Organization called for a prohibition on harmful fishing subsidies, but despite periodic negotiations, the member countries have failed to reach an agreement over the past two decades. The data provided by studies such as this will lay the groundwork for more equitable fishing practices. For animal advocates who want to ban industrial fishing, this study can be used to shift public opinion and call for stricter policies to punish those who use subsidies to exploit our oceans.