Certain types of government fishing fleet subsidies contribute to a critical global problem: too many vessels on the world’s oceans chasing too few fish.

These subsidies are intended to promote fishing by industrial and small-scale entities, typically helping to supplement income or lower costs. But subsidies can become harmful to fish stocks when the payments allow fishers to travel farther, stay at sea longer or have greater capacity than they would have otherwise. Therefore, subsidies often promote fishing beyond sustainable limits. In fact, a 2018 study showed that without government subsidies, as much as 54% of high seas fishing grounds would be unprofitable at current fishing rates.

Global fishing capacity—the total capability of the world’s fleets—is estimated at 250% of the level that would bring in the maximum sustainable catch, a scale of fishing made possible largely by subsidies. Governments pay about $20 billion a year in damaging types of fisheries subsidies, primarily to industrial fishers, to offset costs such as fuel, gear and vessel construction.

In June 2022, after 21 years of on-and-off discussions and negotiations, members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) adopted a fisheries subsidies agreement. While this is a historic step towards tackling overfishing, countries need to ratify the agreement swiftly for these reforms to take effect, and for members to fulfil their commitment to address outstanding issues related to overfishing and overcapacity.

The Pew Charitable Trusts is working with WTO members, scientists and other stakeholders to advocate for urgent ratification and implementation of the agreement, as well as to support continued negotiations on outstanding issues to substantially reduce those subsidies that are harmful to fisheries.

Stemming the flow of harmful fisheries subsidies would reduce pressure on fish stocks, improve ocean health and protect future livelihoods in coastal communities.