Fishing for subsidies

Fish the world over are being removed from the oceans at an alarming and unsustainable rate. One estimate from a recent WWF report suggests that the populations of fish species which are caught by humans for food have halved in recent decades, with selected species witnessing even more pronounced declines in numbers. Approximately a quarter of all elasmobranchs – that is, sharks, rays and skates – for instance, verge upon extinction, primarily due to unsustainable levels of fishing. Strong and increasing world demand for fish and seafood derivatives look set to place an additional pressure on an already burdened resource.

The consequences of such relentless and unrestrained extraction can be catastrophic for ecosystems. The removal of apex predators from certain waters, for instance sharks and tuna, may trigger a mushrooming of species lower down the food chain, which can go unchecked in the absence of a natural control mechanism. Conversely, the overexploitation of herbivorous fish which arrest algal succession can spell disaster for marine environments, such as corals and coastlines, because the algae toxify waters and impinge upon the ability of reefs to take hold and flourish. Tackling overfishing, therefore, will be vital to preserve not only some of the most precious fish species, but also the wider environment at large.

Solutions to overfishing

An earlier blog post explored the possible introduction of ‘individual transferable quota’ (ITQ) systems into areas which are not currently subject to them, as a solution to the problem of overfishing. Quotas like these permit fishers to catch an allotted quantity of a species of fish over a certain period of time. Indeed, ITQs have proven to be at worst better than unregulated arrangements, and at best a genuine method of ensuring sustainable fishing. Yet, given the complex and politicised nature of ITQs, they have often proved challenging to implement in practice.

Even so, other, more moderate, solutions to the problem of unsustainable fishing are available. One particular impediment of efforts to move towards a more sustainable system of fishing, for instance, is the copious subsidies which enable an uneconomically large fishing fleet to exist. Whilst challenging to definitively calculate, aggregated fishing subsidies across the globe total an estimated $35 billion.  

First of all, it must be said that not all subsidies associated with the fishing industry are necessarily deleterious for sustainability. There are examples of desirable behaviour being encouraged through subsidies, such as incentivising fishers to trade in old, environmentally harmful fishing gear – like drift nets – for cash payments, which they can put towards newer, safer equipment. On some analyses, approximately $15 billion of subsidies worldwide are directed into broadly socially beneficial programmes – including funding for the rehabilitation of ecosystems, fisheries management schemes, and environmentally-oriented research and development.

The harmful effect of subsidies

Sadly, however, the majority of state-administered aid to fishers is not so ecologically ameliorating. The conservation group Oceana have calculated that as little as 1% of all subsidies granted by EU member states to their native fishing industries had beneficial consequences for the environment. Taking the UK in isolation, over €17.5 million of subsidy payments were classed as detrimental, over €160 million as ‘ambiguous’, and none at all were regarded as environmentally beneficial. 

Particularly perverse are so-called ‘capacity enhancing’ subsidies, which pay for the operational costs associated with fishing, such as fuel expenditure or port construction, thereby permitting a greater number of vessels to take to the seas than would be the case otherwise. Indeed, amongst developed and developing nations, an estimated 22% of all fishing subsidies are directed towards reducing the cost of fuel. In addition, research has found that 90% of capacity enhancing subsidies are granted to large-scale, industrialised fishers, as opposed to artisanal, subsistence fishers, which have less of an impact upon marine environments.   

Policies such as capacity enhancing subsidies are increasingly recognised as damaging to our seas, and hinder efforts to achieve sustainability in fish stocks. But not all subsidies are necessarily bad. Those which are tailored to encourage environmentally friendly practices will assist fishers to adapt how they operate for the better. The industry will also require some level of subsidy to pay for monitoring and data collection, each of which help to ensure the rebuilding of fish stocks and their maintenance thereafter.

Much in the same way as has been touted for land agriculture, when the UK withdraws from the EU, the chance arises for greater consideration to be given to how fishing subsidies are allocated. It is doubtless that reducing payments which are capacity enhancing will force some fishers out of the market. But if the government chose to do this, one option could be to reinvest the savings from curtailing capacity enhancing subsidies into measures which help our marine ecosystems to thrive. Further, for those fishers efficient enough to remain, they will do so within an environment which they can be sure will be economically productive for years and decades to come.

Eamonn Ives is a researcher at Bright Blue