EU Subsidies Favor Industry, Promote Overfishing Abroad

Study Says Taxpayers Fund Fishing in Waters of Developing Countries

Spanish Trawlers at Port.

The European Union, or EU, pays 75 percent of the access fees for European vessels to fish in the waters of developing countries in Africa and the South Pacific, according to a new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia.

Industry pays the remaining 25 percent, but that represents only about 2 percent of the revenue it receives from selling the catch. The EU subsidies provide strong incentives for overfishing, according to the study, published November 27, 2013 in the journal PLOS ONE.

“Frequently, subsidies cover the cost of fuel or equipment, but in this case, the government covers a large part of the access fees as well,” says Frédéric Le Manach, lead author of the study and a fisheries expert with the Sea Around Us Project at the UBC Fisheries Centre in Vancouver. “Since the fishing fleets don't pay the full cost of access, greater profit allows for spending on more efficient vessels. This may lead to over-exploitation of the developing countries' tuna populations and other already vulnerable marine resources.”

Subsidized Foreign Fishing by the EU

In the study, supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the UBC researchers analyzed agreements the EU made with developing countries to access their waters between 1980 and 2012. These agreements include fees that range from roughly €400,000 to €230 million per year per country (about US$470,000 to US$305 million at today's exchange rates). The text of the agreements shows that the EU government paid a total of about €5 billion toward the access fees during this period. To compare the industry's fee to its revenues from fishing, the researchers used data from the agreements and a database of global fish prices. Such calculations were possible only for agreements relating to tuna because other agreements did not consistently include the catch level available to EU vessels.

The study found that the fishing industry paid about one-fourth the cost of access. Assuming that ratio holds for all agreements, this equates to about €1.7 billion over the 33-year period. But revenue from fishing in these waters totaled about €96 billion, so the fees paid by the industry amounted to only about 2 percent of its revenue (1.5 percent for tuna and 3.2 percent for other species).

“The EU has the potential to lead the world in sustainable fisheries,” says Daniel Pauly, principal investigator with the Sea Around Us Project and a study co-author. “But as they stand now, these access agreements are being subsidized in ways that disadvantage developing countries and contradict the EU's own development goals by forcing their citizens to essentially pay twice for the fish they're taking off of the plates of developing countries.”

The authors recommend that host countries learn from Pacific nations that recently began to charge higher fees for access to their waters—up to 50 percent more than the world average in the case of the island nation of Kiribati. They also note that a senior representative of the French tuna fleet recently acknowledged that the fees paid by the industry are low and that it would be reasonable to set them at up to 7 percent of the value of fish landed.