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 percent 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 percent 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 December 2017, members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) issued a ministerial declaration indicating they planned to negotiate and adopt an agreement on fisheries subsidies by their next major meeting in June 2020.

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ project on reducing harmful fishing subsidies is working with WTO members, scientists, and other stakeholders to secure this agreement and substantially reduce those subsidies that are harmful to fisheries.

To help reach this goal, the project is leading outreach to WTO members to improve understanding of the effects of these subsidies and to identify paths toward reform. Stemming the stream of capacity-building subsidies would reduce pressure on fish stocks and help improve international fisheries management.

Project Goal
  • To ensure that the World Trade Organization adopts measures by the end of June 2020 to substantially reduce harmful fisheries subsidies.