Damaging fisheries subsidies lead to overfishing and illegal practices
03 May 2023 --- Harmful fisheries subsidies are causing more fishing vessels to chase fewer fish, leading to adverse environmental and societal impacts, according to a study by the University of British Columbia. The study quantified the number of subsidies that support fishing in the high seas, domestic and foreign waters and discovered that between 20% and 37% of subsidies funded fishing in waters outside the jurisdictions of their home nation.
“Harmful subsidies often lead to a fishing fleet being able to go out fishing even if [the fishing] isn’t profitable,” says Anna Schuhbauer, author of the study and postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries.
“And these vessels can go wherever they want – they can go to other countries, other economic zones. And so, we were really interested in the impact of these subsidies on the countries where these boats actually fish,” she notes.
According to the study, the subsidies primarily come from developed nations, yet they disproportionately harm developing countries’ waters.
The subsidies come in fuel discounts, tax exemptions, vessel construction support, marketing and processing infrastructure investment.
Harmful subsidies can encourage unsustainable fishing capacities, increasing the risk of exploitation, flag the scientists.
An estimated US$22.2 billion in destructive fisheries subsidies were provided to the world’s fishing fleets in 2018, with US$5.3 billion likely to support fishing in foreign waters and within the exclusive economic zones (up to 370 km from the coast) of foreign nations and US$1 billion supporting fishing in the high seas.
Harming local fishing operations
According to the researchers, local fishing can suffer when big boats, “harmfully subsidized,” take all the fish and livelihood opportunities away from local fishers. Food insecurity becomes an issue, especially for communities heavily reliant on fishing for subsistence.
According to the study, subsidies “artificially create jobs,” which leads to an economy falsely dependent on fishing, where the government does not support creating different, sustainable livelihood opportunities.
“What we're finding out is that harmful fishing subsidies create more inequities in places where the coastal communities are already marginalized,” Schuhbauer says.
“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,” she underscores.
Schuhbauer flags that the scientists do not recommend subsidizing small-scale fishing as a solution but to take away harmful subsidies in general.
Lost opportunity cost
By using money to promote fishing, not only does it harm the fish populations and cause more CO2 to be released into the atmosphere through cheaper fuels, but the money itself is not destined for other causes.
“There is a huge opportunity cost when limited public resources are used to subsidize overfishing because the same resources are not available to tackle some of the big challenges facing these communities, such as building and running community health centers and schools,” says Rashid Sumaila, professor at the University Killam and Canada Research Chair at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries.
“The alternative is to provide support that actively works to increase sustainability and equitability in fisheries, particularly in shared fisheries,” adds Daniel Skerritt, lead author of the study and a former postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) partially banned fisheries subsidies last year, but only for illegal fishing and fishing on overfished stocks. WTO members will meet again in February 2025 to negotiate the parts of the deal that were not included, including the prohibition of all harmful subsidies.
According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), fish stocks risk collapsing in many parts of the world due to overexploitation. It is estimated that 34% of global reserves are overfished compared with 10% in 1974.
Furthermore, wild Atlantic salmon stocks have dropped to the lowest levels on record and are nearing crisis proportions, the latest stock assessment by the Environment Agency reported in July.
By Marc Cervera
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