Fisheries Subsidies Are Taking a Toll on Ocean Health

Report shows payments to industrial fleet in French Polynesia run counter to expert recommendations

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Fisheries Subsidies Are Taking a Toll on Ocean Health
Docked boats
Harmful fisheries subsidies—a key driver for overfishing—are estimated at $20 billion globally.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Our ocean is increasingly at risk: According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s “State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2018” report, the percentage of fish stocks fished at unsustainable levels tripled from 1974 to 2015. This problem has grown more severe because technology allows fishing fleets to travel farther than before and stay at sea longer. Compounding this challenge, many governments are even paying for this to happen through harmful fisheries subsidies—a key driver for overfishing—that are estimated at US $20 billion globally. 

In French Polynesia, industrial fishing is largely subsidized with public funds. In fact, from 2000 to 2017, subsidies were estimated at US $1 (EUR 0.88) per pound of fish produced, with US $12 million (EUR 10.5 million) spent in 2017 alone. We examined how much public money was going toward supporting our fishing industry compared with international environmental recommendations on subsidies in a report published today, “Public Funding of Offshore Fishing in French Polynesia”.

Our main conclusion was that the level of public money going toward fishing subsidies in French Polynesia runs counter to international recommendations and guidance on the issue. Most of the public subsidies in French Polynesia go toward industrial fishing rather than coastal fisheries that would benefit local communities. The government’s strategy to expand industrial fishing – doubling the production and yield of the deep-sea fishery, focusing on exporting fresh and frozen fish, and extending the fleet to remote, currently unfished areas – would probably require an increase in public subsidies.

Around the world, the practice of subsidizing industrial fishing fleets has widely been recognized as detrimental to overall ocean health because it encourages overfishing, which leads to a decrease in fish populations. Indeed, harmful fisheries subsidies result in more and more vessels on the water chasing fewer and fewer fish. The scope, magnitude, and effects of harmful fisheries subsidies are so significant that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14.6 recommends eliminating them by 2020 to protect the world’s ocean. World Trade Organization members are committed to adopting an agreement by the end of 2019 that prohibits fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing and eliminates subsidies that support illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

In French Polynesia, solutions for reforming fishing subsidies could include directing public aid toward fishing communities in lagoons and along the coasts, or investing in the protection and preservation of marine resources through establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs).

Research shows that MPAs that are well-managed and allow little or no extractive activity boast remarkable ecological gains. These benefits include greater diversity and density of species, higher numbers of key species such as sharks, healthier fisheries, and improved ecosystem resiliency. Healthy fish stocks are also key to keeping marine ecosystems resilient to the effects of climate change and other impacts of human activities.

International bodies have made other recommendations to advance marine protection. Through its Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations set a target of protecting 10 percent of the ocean by 2020. Currently only 4.8 percent of the ocean is under some form of protection, with just 2.2 percent of the ocean under a high level of protection. In 2016, members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature called for the protection of at least 30 percent of the ocean by 2030 through a network of marine protected areas with no extractive activities and other effective conservation measures. Meeting this global target through the designation of large, fully protected marine reserves, while reducing pressure on fish stocks by eliminating harmful fisheries subsidies, can result in a more sustainable ocean and future.

Creating MPAs to help safeguard fish populations would allow decision-makers to protect the marine environment and invest in the future of communities that depend on healthy fish stocks. Otherwise, the fishing industry itself risks becoming endangered – and with it, the fish stocks and the island populations that depend on them.

Jerome Petit is a director and Donatien Tanret is an officer with the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project’s French Polynesia campaign.