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When Too Many Boats Chase Too Few Fish

The long history of government subsidies to fishing fleets has led to a decline in many fisheries over the last half-century

October 19, 2022 By: Carmel Finley Read time:

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When Too Many Boats Chase Too Few Fish

In the aftermath of World War II, millions of people were starving. With this humanitarian imperative, governments set out to build fishing fleets. It was a historic change: Where once fishermen built boats, now governments would subsidize the task, a move that would lead to enormous catching capacity that soon changed the economics of fishing around the world in ways we are contending with today.

Over time, subsidies allowed fleets to grow in number, to employ new technologies, and to travel farther in quest of fish. In recent decades, the full extent of these subsidies has become clear. A 2018 study showed that without government subsidies, as much as 54% of high seas fishing grounds would be unprofitable at current fishing rates. In June, World Trade Organization members meeting in Geneva agreed to new curbs on some subsidies. It was an important turning point but also illustrated that much more is needed. Moving forward, these kinds of reforms will continue to fight the pulls of history.

That history shows the intertwined stories of competing nations, an early lack of strong science-based understanding of fish stocks, and how governance structures were not up to the task of global management of an essential natural resource.

Over more than a half-century, governments have spent billions to make fishing more efficient, to find new stocks to exploit, and to facilitate the creation of new institutional agreements that laid the groundwork for fishing companies to operate easily throughout the world. Until 1976, there were no restrictions on where boats could fish.

As early as the 1950s, subsidies allowed new technologies spawned in wartime—such as radar and sonar—to be installed on fishing boats, increasing their catches dramatically. Subsidies to expand fishing have their roots in the growing industrialization of nature after 1920, as scientific concepts of industrial management were applied to natural resource systems. Fisheries that modernized and industrialized could catch far more fish more economically. Catches increased about 8% a year through the 1950s, stimulating coastal economies and providing products for export.

Iceland was one of the first nations to industrialize fishing. During the 1920s and 1930s, fishermen in rowboats caught cod just as they had for centuries. Icelandic fishermen braved the German blockades in English waters to deliver most of the fish consumed in Britain during the war. With the coming of peace, Iceland ordered 90 new trawlers from Sweden and another 30 from Britain; the vessels cost $500,000 each. An Icelandic trawler was the first in the world with a radar; by 1950, the nation’s fleet was the most modern in the world.

Other larger nations quickly followed. Japan had been the world’s leading fishing nation before World War II. Under American occupation and anxious to feed its people, the government wanted to get as many boats as possible fishing again. It would take the Japanese government less than two years after the war’s end to rebuild the world’s most capable fishing fleet, a fleet that had always been too big for its own waters. And with the signing of the Japanese peace treaty in 1951, the Japanese ships, rebuilt and with greater capacity, began to sail to the North Pacific to catch salmon and groundfish, while a rejuvenated—and also subsidized—whaling fleet also took to sea.

In those same postwar years, the Soviet Union announced a massive five-year plan to expand fishing fivefold by 1950. It built the world’s largest whaling and fishing fleet, with more than 5,400 distant water vessels that amounted to at least half of the world’s gross vessel tonnage for fleets of this size and type.

What this all meant was that fishing was moving steadily down the ocean food chain: After taking the big fish, fishers were targeting the smaller ones, such as anchovies and herring—today, it includes the tiny krill of the Southern Ocean—and steadily reducing the complexity of the ocean ecosystem.

In 1954, a British fishing company built the world’s first factory processing ship, the Fairtry, and sent it to Newfoundland to hunt for cod. It was 280 feet and carried a crew of 80 at a time when the largest British side trawlers averaged 185 feet with a crew of 20. The Fairtry transformed fishing, adopting the stern ramp from whaling ships that made it easier for crews to haul in the nets. As part of the expansion of its fleets, the Soviets ordered two dozen ships just like the Fairtry.

In 1961, the Spanish government began a period of generous government loans and subsidies for fishing boats. Spanish frozen fish production rose from 4,000 tons in 1961 to approximately 500,000 tons in 1972. And by the early 1970s, Spain had the third-largest fishing fleet in the world, after the Soviet Union and Japan, concentrating in hake fisheries off South Africa and on new species off South America.

Other untapped regions also became new fishing grounds. One of the fastest-growing fisheries was off West Africa, where European and Asian nations increased the catch from 1.4 million tons in 1967 to 3.7 million tons by 1976. Fishing was being revolutionized and food from the sea was playing an increasing role in the economies of Eastern Europe, Japan, Korea, and especially China.

Around the world, the overcall catch was growing—but individual stocks were in trouble. Norwegian and Icelandic herring stocks waned during the 1950s, followed by South African pilchards in 1960, Peruvian anchoveta in 1962, and Georges Banks herring in 1967. And demand for fish for oil and meal production grew, a practice that exploits young fish, including cod.

What this all meant was that fishing was moving steadily down the ocean food chain: After taking the big fish, fishers were targeting the smaller ones, such as anchovies and herring—today, it includes the tiny krill of the Southern Ocean—and steadily reducing the complexity of the ocean ecosystem.

Haitong Yu Getty Images

Meanwhile, the market for frozen fish was expanding rapidly. The fish stick was introduced in 1953. Fish fillets could be flash-frozen in large blocks in Canada, Iceland, and Norway and shipped to the U.S., where the blocks were sliced, breaded, deep-fried, and frozen again. The sticks were uniform, simple to prepare, and, best of all, required no cooking (merely heating), totally divorcing fish sticks from the idea of messy, smelly fish that consumers had trouble cooking. Imports of fish blocks into the U.S. soared to 50 million pounds by 1956.

In that era, the sea itself was still seen as enormously resilient, capable of producing huge amounts of fish. The political apparatus to build fishing boats and create processing jobs was firmly established. How many fish could be caught? Nobody knew, but the assumptions were that the sustained harvest might be in the neighborhood of 200 million tons. The catch peaked at 86 million tons in 1996, then slightly declined.

As the technology to find fish improved, fishing became more like strip mining. There are now few areas in the world’s oceans where fishermen have not been able to follow fish. Seabed mapping, global positioning systems, fish-finding electronics, and lighter, stronger nets have all allowed fishing to penetrate the deepest marine canyons. Canadian journalist Michael Harris has written that we are “using the black magic of technology to make a desert of the sea.”

In the same postwar period during which subsidies were taking hold, many of the international institutions that manage fisheries and whaling were being created. Most international commissions were bilateral and multilateral organizations with very limited authority, because individual governments controlled how many boats would be allowed to fish—and those governments were propping up their fishing fleets with billions of dollars.

Just as the new tools of technology expanded the ability of fishermen to catch fish, so too did the new tools of science transform fisheries biology. Statistics, mathematical modeling, and the theories of population dynamics—aided by computers to analyze large amounts of data—were shifting the science away from the traditional study of fish and how they interacted in their environment. These fish population demographics studies, used to develop fishing equations for predicting stock abundance, became the mainstay of modern American fisheries biology. In the 1950s many scientists believed that there was a balance within nature, that fishing actually created conditions that led to more fish by removing larger fish that grew more slowly, freeing up feed for smaller fish to grow more quickly. But today, scientists know the ocean as a dynamic ecosystem that is marked by complexity and uncertainty.

Scientists know what to do to restore stocks, especially in marine protected areas, but the history of government subsidies and fisheries management still comes down to the age-old problem of dividing too few fish among too many boats.

Still, it has been only in the past three decades that science has been able to show how the economics of subsidies are playing a direct role in the health of the ocean. In 2003, two researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, began to look past the case studies of individual fish stock declines to what was happening more broadly throughout the ocean. The researchers, Ransom Myers and Boris Worm, looked at a holistic picture of dozens of fisheries, plotting the escalating harvest throughout the world beginning in the 1950s as government subsidies began to transform industrial fishing. Their groundbreaking work changed the scale from the individual to the global. Their conclusion: The development of industrial fishing after World War II was responsible for removing up to 90% of the cod, halibut, tuna, swordfish, marlin, and other large fish in the ocean.

In subsequent years, researchers have steadily built the case that subsidies are a root cause for the overfishing that is threatening the livelihoods of fishers and coastal communities around the world as threatened species decline. A 2019 report commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which has sought to end the subsidies, found that governments pay their fishing industries about $35 billion a year—and $22 billion of that are considered harmful in that they allow vessels to travel farther, stay at sea longer, and catch more fish than they could normally afford to, resulting in a depletion of fish populations beyond sustainable levels.

Even though overfishing has been so widely studied and recognized, it will take time for the World Trade Organization’s global framework to unwind the subsidies that waste so much capital and inflict damage on ocean fish stocks. The move by the WTO’s 164 member governments in June will curb some harmful subsidies as well as enhance transparency and accountability on how governments subsidize their fishing fleets. More needs to be done, but we now have a path for reform. Scientists know what to do to restore stocks, especially in marine protected areas, but the history of government subsidies and fisheries management still comes down to the age-old problem of dividing too few fish among too many boats.

The Takeaway

A history of government subsidies to industrial fishing fleets around the globe have led to steep declines in the ocean’s largest fish, showing that these expenditures must be curtailed.

Carmel Finley is a historian of science at Oregon State University. Her books include All the Fish in the Sea: Maximum Sustainable Yield and the Failures of Fisheries Management and All the Boats on the Ocean: How Government Subsidies Led to Global Overfishing.

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