Two men in rain slickers stand on a trawler unloading small silver fish from nets onto the deck..
Italian fishers unload a fishing net aboard a trawler during a fishing trip in the Tyrrhenian Sea in April 2020. Fishing subsidies are resulting in serious overfishing. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Fisheries subsidies fuel ocean depletion and hurt coastal communities

When scientists are in agreement, decision-makers should take note. Ignoring scientific advice becomes deplorable when doing so affects employment, poverty and food security. Yet this year, such an omission may occur.

This time it’s not the flagrant disregard of consensual climate science, but a warning that the long-term sustainability of our marine environment could be at risk during upcoming World Trade Organization negotiations on fisheries subsidies.

Our group at the University of British Columbia, alongside countless colleagues, aims to strengthen the evidence in support of global fisheries subsidies reform. But with the deadline looming, effective reform looks increasingly unlikely despite two decades of debate.

What’s so bad about fisheries subsidies?

Fisheries subsidies — financial support from public to private sectors — harm fish stocks when they reduce costs or increase revenues. Whether directly or indirectly, subsidies artificially increase profits, incentivize further investment and lead to increased catches. Continued provision of harmful subsidies results in fishing remaining profitable despite diminishing returns and dwindling fish.

Conservation Strategy Fund.

Our research shows that globally, more than US$22 billion of harmful subsidies are provided annually.

The scale and impact of this has led to scientific consensus that subsidy-based fisheries policies that artificially increase profits contribute to overfishing.

Mounting evidence resulted in global commitments to remove harmful subsidies by 2020. Clearly, there is more to ending overfishing than subsidies alone, but this simple step has yet to be taken.

Why is it proving difficult to remove them?

Fisheries subsidies research is conclusive — so much so that the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals specifically target their reform — that removing them is important for ensuring the sustainability of marine resources.

Numerous excuses are trotted out about why we cannot take this step, including the claim that harmful subsidies are necessary for alleviating poverty or competing with other fishing nations.


Read more: Lessons for sustainable fisheries are hiding in plain sight


Science has busted many of these myths — simply put, harmful subsidies undermine the resource base upon which fishers rely, and their removal would actually increase resource availability.

But it seems that national negotiators are not willing to risk their removal despite the future benefits.

Where’s the risk?

From an academic perspective, the advice is clear: Redirect harmful subsidies towards beneficial forms of support that directly help fishers and reduce pressure on overfished stocks. A sensible wager to make, just in case the scientific warnings are true … and if they’re false, what do we lose?

This is the basis of French polymath Blaise Pascal’s theological masterpiece known as Pascal’s Wager in which he argues for the rationality of believing in God: “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.”

Parallels drawn between Pascal’s Wager and ignoring climate science are numerous, since the potential losses of getting it wrong, regarding both religion and climate science, is pestilence, fire and brimstone.

Perhaps we can rationalize fisheries subsidies reform similarly. Let’s consider the losses and gains behind both options; business as usual on one hand, and reform on the other.

Business as usual

Let’s imagine that the world’s fishing nations’ continue to spend US$22 billion on harmful subsidies annually. Fishing capacity — our ability to catch fish — increases concurrently. Short-term employment stabilizes or even increases as more boats chase artificial profits.

Catch rates continue their gradual decline, a more dramatic decline is avoided due to technological advances and more efficient boats allowing us to fish further offshore, in deeper waters, and exploit previously undesirable fish like bottom-dwelling slimeheads or Patagonian toothfish, both renamed relatively recently to orange roughy and Chilean sea bass respectively.

A long skinny fish grey fish with a toothy underbite
The Patagonian toothfish, also known as Chilean sea bass, is a bottom-dweller previously considered undesirable by fishers. Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-SA

But with global fishing fleets double what the ocean can support, this can’t continue.

Fish stocks have declined to historically low levels, with some beyond the point of recovery. That means catches plummet dramatically.

In response, subsidies increase to protect millions of jobs. Our inability to maintain catches results in fish prices skyrocketing. The remaining catch is food for the wealthy and global food security is weakened — approximately three billion people who relied on fish for their protein, must look elsewhere.

Effective fisheries subsidies reform

The removal of harmful subsidies, on the other hand, would reduce the profitability of the industrial fleets that receive 90 per cent of them, resulting in job losses. Food security, fish prices and the majority of jobs, however, would be minimally impacted, at least in developing nations, which despite employing 97 per cent of the world’s fishers and catching the majority of the world’s fish, only provide minimal subsidies.

Initial economic loss from removing foreign access agreements would eventually be compensated by greater food security and increased revenues from local vessels filling the void of foreign fleets.

An empty industrial fishing net, grey and white in colour.
Industrial fishing nets are seen in this photo. (Piqsels)

The next few decades would see fishing align with fish abundance, supported by effective management and the rebuilding of fish stocks. Eventually fishers (or at least their children) would fill vacant jobs. We would fish less but catch more.

Any initial lost GDP would be exceeded by increased revenue from some 10 million tonnes of extra catch from rebuilt stocks. Fish would become a reliable and cost-effective food source.

Is this the year fisheries subsidies end?

These two science-based scenarios recognize the reality of short-term losses. We are asking national negotiators to swap out the current ruinous system for a more sustainable future down the road.

The evidence shows we could remove harmful subsidies tomorrow and support the sector via different means without long-lasting impacts. Initial short-term losses, felt especially by industrial fleets, will eventually be eclipsed by increased resource availability. The cost of inaction, however, over the long term, is devastating.

Two men fish off some rocks in B.C. as a commercial fishing boat passes by.
Sport fishermen cast their lines as a commercial fishing boat heads out on the Fraser River from Steveston Harbour during a 32-hour fishery window in Richmond, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Sadly, the likelihood is that we will not see the end of harmful fisheries subsidies this year. The least we expect is the removal of subsidies that support illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. We additionally hope to see the removal of subsidies impacting overfished stocks.

But this isn’t the time to give up. Rather, it’s time for all who care for marine biodiversity, fish, fishers, coastal communities and fish-workers of today and tomorrow to support and push World Trade Organization negotiators to get an effective deal done.

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