Global fish stocks that feed hundreds of millions of people are dwindling.
In a survey of 152 countries, scientists at the University of British Columbia found that ocean-faring nations spent $22 billion on harmful subsidies in 2018, or 63 percent of the total amount expended to support the global fishing industry.That’s a 6 percent rise since 2009.
Harmful subsidies is a term that refers to those that promote overfishing and illegal fishing that would otherwise not be profitable, such as subsidies that underwrite fuel costs allowing industrial trawlers to sail to the farthest reaches of the planet. Fuel subsidies alone accounted for 22 percent of all fishing subsidies last year. China, which operates the world’s largest overseas fishing fleet, has increased harmful subsidies by 105 percent over the past decade, according to the study published in Marine Policy. China provides the most subsidies of any nation—some $7.2 billion in 2018, accounting for 21 percent of global support. Some subsidies are considered beneficial, such as those that pay for the sustainable management of fisheries. But over the past decade, money awarded by China for beneficial subsidies fell 73 percent while those considered harmful, such as paying for fuel or boat-building, more than doubled.
Marine scientists and policy experts say a legally binding accord to ban destructive fishing subsidies is critical as climate change disrupts marine ecosystems. A landmark United Nations report issued in September found that the maximum catch from fisheries could decline by as much as 24.1 percent by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated.
“The key reason subsidies are increasing is politics, as once you give people something like a fuel subsidy it’s very difficult to take it away, ” says lead author Rashid Sumaila, a prominent expert on fisheries subsidies at the University of British Columbia. “The politics of this is very hard, but it’s important for scientists to continue to show how this is not working for society.”
WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo, said, “There is no question that many fish stocks are being depleted and that unfettered state funding for fishing can harm our oceans,”
A third of commercial fish stocks are being harvested at biologically unsustainable levels and 90 percent are fully exploited, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The population of Pacific bluefin tuna, for instance, has plunged 97 percent from historic levels due to rampant overfishing of one of the ocean’s most ecologically and economically valuable top predators.
In recent decades, nations whose own fish stocks have collapsed have dispatched industrial trawlers to fish on the high seas and in other countries’ territorial waters. China’s overseas fishing fleet of 3,000 vessels roams the ocean from Africa to the Antarctic to the Pacific. A study last year found nearly half the fish caught on the high seas in 2014 ended up in the holds of Chinese and Taiwanese vessels.
The European Union in June moved to restore subsidies to expand its fishing fleet. The EU already accounts for 11 percent of global subsidies and awarded $2 billion in harmful support in 2018, according to the researchers.
“What really bothers me is the example the EU is giving to other countries,” says Sumaila.