Who should foot the bill for the world’s seafood? On the one hand, fisheries are the business opportunity of a lifetime – a resource that can replenish itself, a food source that doesn’t need any land, nature underwriting a globally tradeable commodity. On the other, they are fraught with economic risk – an unpredictable production base, the need for significant upfront investment, a high-stakes gamble rather than a certainty.

National governments have – for a long time – been the economic drivers of exploring new fishery frontiers. Cities, nations, even empires, have been built on the spoils of the ocean, with governments competing with their geopolitical rivals to exploit uncharted maritime territory, from Japan and the USA in the tuna-rich waters of the Pacific to the UK, France and Spain chasing the formerly bountiful cod off Canada’s Grand Banks. Government loans, tax cuts and financial support – for vessel construction, to suppress fuel prices, to build onshore fish-processing facilities – have helped to shape the modern global fishing fleet.

Perverse subsidies

For several decades, these financial incentives to fish have come under increased global scrutiny, facing the accusation that they deplete the very resources on which the fishing industry depends. Where fishing is well-managed, the pressure has started to reduce; vessel numbers are declining rather than increasing and governments may even be paying to get businesses and people out of the sector, rather than into it. There are, however, many parts of the world where this is not the case, where governmental funding (to the tune of US$35 billion globally) is propping up fishing fleets that are targeting a dwindling supply, fishing harder to catch less, with subsidies masking the economic perversity of unsustainable extraction.

Subsidies mainly benefit industrial fleets at the expense of small-scale operators and coastal communities who fish sustainably. Credit: Robert Howard/FFI

Fishing subsidies distort the market for the ocean’s natural capital, giving even the most destructive practices the appearance of financial viability. Bottom trawling, in particular, is economically questionable, as the motion of dragging the seabed requires more fossil fuel consumption than other methods and this fuel is often subsidised in larger vessels. It is also a hugely high-risk fishing practice, capable of altering marine habitats in a single pass, releasing carbon from disturbed ocean sediments and resulting in high levels of bycatch. Other less obvious forms of subsidy may include the provision of low-cost gear to improve fishing catch – but where this includes destructive gears it will damage the biodiversity that underpins the fishery.

Time for change

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has joined the global campaign to #StopFundingOverfishing, which is urging the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to end harmful fishery subsidies through legally binding international trade law. We encourage WTO members to consider not just the economic case for this measure but also the detrimental impact of subsidisation on ocean health. Across its global marine programme, FFI’s in-country teams and partners have witnessed the adverse effects of harmful subsidies on the marine biodiversity they are so desperately trying to conserve.

In places with minimal monitoring or management of fisheries, subsidies enable vessels to keep fishing even where their initial target species have entirely collapsed. Peltier Barahona, sustainable fisheries specialist for FFI, describes this scenario in Nicaragua’s shrimp fishery: “It’s a boom-and-bust fishery, and fuel subsidies have played a worrying role in keeping the fishery afloat. If we want to have effectively protected marine ecosystems in Nicaragua, we need to rethink subsidies, as they undermine our conservation efforts.”

In Turkey, long-term FFI partner Akdeniz Koruma Derneği (AKD) has seen fuel subsidies lead to environmental degradation. AKD’s president Zafer Kızılkaya explains: “If I could change one thing about government investment in fisheries, it would be fuel subsidies. Large-scale purse-seiners and bottom trawlers that receive these subsidies have huge impacts, overexploiting species from mackerel to mullet and generating huge bycatch of vulnerable species. Many ray species are almost extinct in Turkey through heavy trawling damage.”

Sardines in a purse seine net. Credit: Zafer Kizilkaya

In Kenya, financial support from the government was intended to improve local fisheries’ productivity, but has inadvertently promoted destructive practices. Isa Gedi, from FFI’s Kenyan partner Northern Rangelands Trust Coast, explains: “Beach seine nets – which are dragged on the surface of the seabed – can damage coral reefs and, if abandoned, kill turtles. By subsidising the costs of this fishing equipment, we are not considering the need for long-term fishery sustainability.”

Recovery plan

In some of these countries (none of which is among the world’s largest fishery subsidisers), the impact of a WTO ruling will depend on a complex balancing act between food security, sustainable use and economic development. Nations have the right to exploit marine resources, and responsible financing is clearly needed to optimise the benefits of those resources, but governments must carefully consider what they are investing in; low-impact, low-carbon intensity, sustainable fishing or biodiversity-depleting, carbon-intensive and unsustainable fishing?

“If I could change one thing about government investment in fisheries, it would be fuel subsidies. Large-scale purse-seiners and bottom trawlers that receive these subsidies have huge impacts, overexploiting species from mackerel to mullet and generating huge bycatch of vulnerable species.”
Zafer Kizilkaya President, Akdeniz Koruma Derneği (Mediterranean Conservation Society)

In these final days of negotiation, WTO members should consider seriously the substantial financial benefits of conservation investment (from Marine Protected Areas to fishery monitoring). Subsidies that reduce fishing pressure and remove ecologically harmful fishing methods can enable ecosystems and stocks to recover, and hence allow a transition back towards an ocean of abundance, supporting higher, sustainable economic returns from fisheries and with greater resilience to ocean warming, acidification and pollution.

The annual US$35 billion that currently props up overfishing is yet another example of the misguided, myopic insistence on investing in environmentally harmful activities, in this case at the expense of ocean health and those who rely on it – which is ultimately all of us. We urgently need to redirect funding towards ecologically and economically sustainable initiatives that put the planet first.

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