Fishing Subsidies Are Speeding the Decline of Ocean Health

With too many boats chasing too few fish, it’s time for a change

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Fishing Subsidies Are Speeding the Decline of Ocean Health
Haddock in a net off the north coast of Scotland in the North Atlantic ocean.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Note: This article was updated Dec. 19, 2018, to clarify language regarding a United Nations statistic on the percentage of the world’s fisheries that are overfished.

More than 1 billion people worldwide depend on seafood as a main source of protein, and about 100 million people rely directly on fishing for their income. Yet according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2018 report, 93 percent of marine fisheries worldwide are fished at or beyond sustainable catch levels.

Fisheries subsidies are one of the key drivers behind this decline in fish stocks. Governments pay around $20 billion each year in damaging types of fisheries subsidies, primarily to industrial fishers, to offset costs such as fuel, gear, and vessel construction. Although not all subsidies are harmful, many encourage fishing beyond sustainable biological limits by helping vessels go farther and fish for longer periods and with greater capacity than they would without this assistance. Today, in part driven by fisheries subsidies, global fishing capacity—the total capability of the world’s fleets—is estimated at 250 percent of the level that would bring in the maximum sustainable catch.

The resulting overfishing is a threat not only to fish stocks but also to the health of the ocean and, by extension, all who rely on it. Healthy fish stocks are vital to functioning marine ecosystems and to the food security and livelihoods of billions of people and can help the ocean better withstand a range of stresses, including climate change.

Ultimately, there are too many boats on the ocean chasing too few fish. One way to correct that is by curtailing capacity-enhancing subsidies to reduce pressure on fish stocks, thus ensuring a more sustainable future for coastal communities worldwide. With the launch of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ reducing harmful fishing subsidies project, we are working to do just that by encouraging members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to adopt a binding agreement that will limit or eliminate harmful subsidies that cause overfishing.

This is in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal on the ocean, SDG 14, which calls for prohibiting subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing and eliminating subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing by 2020.

That deadline has created a brief window in which a substantial reduction of global fisheries subsidies may be possible. In line with SDG 14, in December 2017 WTO members issued a ministerial declaration indicating their intent to negotiate and adopt an agreement on fisheries subsidies by the end of 2019. While reining in the harmful effects of subsidized fishing has been on the WTO agenda for almost two decades, the time has come for governments to reach a meaningful agreement.

An ambitious WTO outcome would be transformative. It would bind the organization’s entire membership and also would be backed by its dispute resolution and compliance process, which is regarded as one of the strongest in international law.

The cost of inaction is too high. The scope, magnitude, and effects of harmful fishing subsidies are so significant that eliminating them would go a long way toward curtailing overfishing and helping to ensure that our ocean can continue to provide food and support jobs far into the future.

Elizabeth Wilson directs international conservation policy for The Pew Charitable Trusts.