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Study: Fishing Subsidies Support Unregulated Distant-Water Fishing

EJF trawler image
File image courtesy EJF

Published May 14, 2023 12:26 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a new study, researchers at University of British Columbia (UBC) have lifted the lid on the impacts of fisheries subsidies, the majority of which are being granted by governments in Europe, North America and Asia. These subsidies are fueling unregulated fishing, particularly in South American, Latin America and African waters, with harmful impacts.

The researchers found that fisheries subsidies are leading to more fishing vessels chasing fewer fish stocks, leading to adverse environmental and societal impacts.

In essence, the subsidies which are any direct or indirect financial contribution by governments to the commercial fishing industry that aid in increasing revenues or lowering the costs of fishing, have played a central role in encouraging vessels to venture into waters far off from their jurisdictions. Between 20 percent and 37 percent of subsidies are supporting fishing in areas outside of the jurisdiction of the original subsidizing nation, and another three to seven percent support fishing on the high seas. 

These government support policies include fuel subsidies, tax exemptions, support for vessel construction, and investment in marketing and processing infrastructure. They alter the economics of fishing in ways that have consequences, according to the researchers.

The study shows that in 2018, an estimated $22.2 billion in fisheries subsidies were provided to the world’s fishing fleets, mainly by governments in the developed world. Of this, some $5.3 billion was likely paid out to support fishing in foreign waters and within the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of foreign nations, and another $1 billion supported fishing in the high seas. The remaining $15.9 billion supported domestic fishing within the EEZs of the subsidizing nations.

The researchers contend that the numbers mean that the benefits, and the resulting environmental and societal costs, of subsidies are not equally distributed across the places the fishing vessels go.

“What we’re finding out is that harmful fishing subsidies create more inequities in places where the coastal communities are already marginalized. You have coastal communities that are already disadvantaged over the big industrial fisheries because the government doesn’t really pay too much attention to them,” said Anna Schuhbauer, author of the study and postdoctoral research fellow at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries.

She added that the harmful subsidies enable fishing fleets to go out fishing even if the fishing isn’t profitable, meaning the vessels can go wherever they want, including to other countries.

In June last year, the WTO struck a deal that partially banned provision of fisheries subsidies. However, the deal only covered illegal fishing and fishing on overfished stocks. Another WTO meeting is slated for February 2025 to negotiate the parts of the deal that were not included, including the prohibition of all harmful subsidies.

South Atlantic and African waters are some of the jurisdictions that have come under siege from foreign vessels carrying out unregulated fishing activities, with fleets from China, South Korea, Taiwan and Spain (among others) venturing into far-off waters.  

Argentina, for instance, has been forced to deploy offshore patrol vessels to monitor international fishing fleets traveling close to its EEZ en route to the South Atlantic waters where overfishing and illegal practices are depleting stocks, particularly of squid and hake species.

UN Food and Agriculture Organization data show that fish stocks risk collapsing in many parts of the world due to overexploitation. Currently, it is estimated that 34 percent of global reserves are overfished compared with 10 percent in 1974. Today, a tenth of fish stocks globally are now on the brink of collapse, reduced to just 10 percent of their original size.

The UBC study shows that Asia, Europe and North America provide more harmful subsidies to their fishing fleets than their respective regional ecosystems are affected by, making them the net subsidy-sources. Conversely, marine ecosystems within Africa and Oceania are significant net subsidy-sinks, meaning that fishing in their waters is supported by more harmful subsidies than are provided by the nations within those regions.

For developing nations, the impacts of fishing subsidies are damaging in that local fishing suffers when big boats, harmfully subsidized, take all the fish and livelihood opportunities away from local fishers. The ripple effect is rising food insecurity, especially for communities which are heavily reliant on day-to-day subsistence fishing.

The researchers contend that harmful subsidies provided to fishing fleets operating outside of the source-nations’ EEZs should be prioritized for removal, particularly when they operate in the high seas or the EEZs of low-income nations.