Negative Fisheries Subsidies are Increasing the Number of Fishing Vessels Chasing Fewer Fish, which has Negative Effects on the Environment and Society

Borders have no effect on fish, and neither do the supported fishing fleets that follow them. According to a recent UBC study that counted the number of harmful fisheries subsidies that support fishing in domestic, foreign, and high seas waters, between 20 and 37% of these subsidies supported fishing in areas outside the purview of their home country.

These subsidies also primarily came from developed countries but disproportionately affected developing countries, having an effect on the environment and societies all over the world.

“Harmful subsidies often lead to a fishing fleet being able to go out fishing even if the fishing isn’t profitable,” said Anna Schuhbauer, author of the study and postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries. “And these vessels can go wherever they want they can go to other countries, other economic zones. And so, we were really interested in the impact of these subsidies on the countries where these boats actually fish.”

Damaging fisheries Subsidies are any direct or indirect financial aid provided by the state to the commercial fishing industry in order to boost profits or reduce costs.

By changing the economics of fishing in this way, damaging subsidies can promote unsustainable fishing capacity that exponentially raises the danger of exploitation. These include fuel subsidies, tax exemptions, assistance for vessel construction, and investments in marketing and processing infrastructure.

In 2018, an estimated $22.2 billion in harmful fisheries subsidies were provided to the world’s fishing fleets. Of this, some $5.3 billion were likely to support fishing in foreign waters and within the exclusive economic zones of foreign nations, and $1 billion supported fishing in the high seas.

Harmful fisheries subsidies can have many serious impacts. Our previous research, and that of colleagues all over the world, have shown how they can distort markets and contribute to unfair trade practices, lead to higher CO2 emissions by making fuel cheaper, and ultimately increase the risk of overfishing.

Daniel Skerritt

According to these figures, the advantages of these subsidies as well as the ensuing environmental and societal costs are not dispersed equally among the locations where these fishing vessels operate.

“What we’re finding out is that harmful fishing subsidies create more inequities in places where the coastal communities are already marginalized,” said Schuhbauer. “You have coastal communities that are already disadvantaged over the big industrial fisheries because the government doesn’t really pay too much attention to them.”

“And we’re not saying that the small-scale fishing fleet should get more subsidies, but maybe the harmful subsidies should be taken away and instead, provided as beneficial subsidies. Maybe for community-based projects or just generally for fisheries management for both industrial and small-scale fleets,” Schuhbauer said.

When large boats steal all the fish and local fishermen’s possibilities for a living, local fishing suffers. Food insecurity also becomes a problem, particularly for groups who primarily rely on daily subsistence fishing.

Artificially produced jobs result in an economy that is erroneously dependent on fishing, where the government opposes the creation of alternative, sustainable sources of income.

“Both current and future generations of marginalized communities in the Global South are heavily impacted by harmful fisheries subsidies,” said Rashid Sumaila, University Killam Professor and Canada Research Chair at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries. “There is a huge opportunity cost when limited public resources are used to subsidize overfishing because the same resources are not available to tackle some of the big challenges facing these communities such as building and running community health centers, and schools.”

“Secondly, because such subsidies lead to overcapacity and overfishing not only by local but also subsidized vessels of distant water fishing nations, they literally take food out the mouth of both current and future generations of these communities.”

These damaging fisheries have a significant ecological impact as well, which should not be understated. Harmful subsidies enable fishing vessels to degrade fish stocks in the waters of other nations rather than addressing the scarcity of fish in local waterways.

“Harmful fisheries subsidies can have many serious impacts,” said Daniel Skerritt, lead author of the study and a former postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, who is now with Oceana. “Our previous research, and that of colleagues all over the world, have shown how they can distort markets and contribute to unfair trade practices, lead to higher CO2 emissions by making fuel cheaper, and ultimately increase the risk of overfishing.”

Over 20 years ago, the world community recognized how harmful fisheries subsidies were destructive to fish stocks and fishing communities, and asked the World Trade Organization (WTO) to address these issues.

“The mandate was to work collaboratively with countries worldwide to discipline them,” said Sumaila. “The WTO reached an agreement in June 2022 to help reduce these subsidies. At the moment, some commentators have found the agreement wanting.”

In June of last year, the WTO reached an agreement that only prohibited illegal fishing and fishing on overfished stocks from receiving fisheries subsidies. The WTO will reconvene in February 2025 to discuss the agreement’s missing provisions, such as the outlawing of all detrimental subsidies.

“This is what most voices in the scientific community are in support of,” said Skerritt. “The alternative is to provide support that actively works to increase sustainability and equitability in fisheries, particularly in shared fisheries.”

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