Governments spend US$22 billion annually to help the fishing industry empty our oceans. This injustice must end

Governments spend US$22 billion annually to help the fishing industry empty our oceans.  This injustice must end

Overfishing has serious consequences for the health of the oceans and for the millions of people who depend on fish for food and well-being. Globally, catches have been declining steadily since the 1990s. This trend is likely to continue if we fail to act now.

Almost all governments, including Australia’s, support their fishing industries. Financial support comes in many forms, from taxpayer-funded fuel to reduced boat building costs. These subsidies are harmful because they encourage poaching. Some of the most environmentally damaging and least efficient fishing activities, such as bottom trawling and long-water fishing, would become unprofitable and cease without government subsidies.

Scientists around the world are mobilizing for strict regulations to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies, which totaled US$22 billion in 2018. Protecting the oceans will enhance food security and allow for a more equitable distribution of marine resources.

Trade ministers from around the world are scheduled to meet later this month in Abu Dhabi for a major meeting of the World Trade Organization. In an open letter published today, we are among 36 marine experts calling on the World Trade Organization to adopt ambitious regulations that promote fisheries sustainability and fairness, and to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies.

Read more: Ending billions in fishing subsidies could improve fish stocks and ocean health

The long-awaited agreement

International pressure from scientists helped reach an earlier agreement on fishing subsidies, which has not yet been ratified.

In October 2021, 300 experts published an article in Nature calling for an end to harmful subsidies in the fishing sector.

After decades of fruitless negotiations, the World Trade Organization finally reached an agreement on fisheries subsidies in June 2022.

Once ratified by two-thirds of WTO members, this agreement will partially address UN Sustainable Development Goal 14.6 to eliminate harmful subsidies.

A man in a suit drops the hammer after reaching an agreement on fisheries subsidies at a World Trade Organization meeting in 2022.
The hammer falls after members reach agreement on fisheries subsidies, Geneva, 17 June 2022.
WTO/Guy LeVillon, CC BY-ND

Unfortunately, although this agreement is historic, it is narrow-minded. It only prohibits member governments from financing illegal fishing activities and exploiting stocks that are already overfished. But it is clear that illegal fishing must be banned, and focusing on overfished stocks is too little, too late.

Experts say the agreement fails to specifically address harmful subsidies across global fisheries, and therefore only affects a trivial element of subsidy-based exploitation. Subsidies that reduce operating costs and increase fishing capacity, allowing ships to travel further and stay at sea longer, remain in place.

Fisheries subsidies don’t just affect fish

Scientists have been sounding the alarm for decades. Numerous published studies document the destabilizing effects that fisheries subsidies have on ecosystems. In addition to affecting biodiversity and ecosystems, subsidies also increase carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change.

More recently, studies have also applied a sociological perspective to this issue. Seafood lifts millions of people out of hunger, malnutrition and poverty. However, more people will lose a secure source of food and nutrients if fish stocks continue to decline due to industrial overfishing.

Research highlighting the concept of “equity” shows that subsidies not only harm the oceans, but also affect human societies. These communities are largely found in developing countries that are rarely a source of harmful fisheries subsidies. Instead, its waters are exploited by foreign vessels supported by fisheries subsidies provided by wealthy governments.

A person wearing gloves bends down to handle dried squid on a fish net
Fisheries contribute to the livelihoods and food security of millions of people.
Jimmy Liao/Pixel, CC BY-SA

Fisheries subsidies promote unfair competition not only between countries but also between industrial and community fishing fleets. In the Indian Ocean, the level of support for industrial fisheries corresponds to the amount of seafood exported to international markets, which largely supplies rich and food-secure countries. This shows that governments are deliberately enabling their industrial fleets to catch seafood that is largely exported and consumed elsewhere, rather than maintaining the fisheries that provide food for local populations.

Read more: Subsidizing fisheries depletes oceans and harms coastal communities

The good, the bad and the ugly

While most countries contribute harmful subsidies, ten countries are responsible for 70% of this unsustainable financing. The most important are China, Japan and the European Union, which reflects the large size of distant water fishing fleets that usually reach the resources of less developed countries.

In contrast, Australia contributes only 0.1% of global harmful subsidies. Only 6% of Australia’s $400 million annual subsidy to fisheries is considered harmful. While Australia should pay attention to the ongoing US$25 million annual taxpayer contribution to the fishing sector, it is well placed to demonstrate global leadership on how fishing can achieve sustainable and equitable outcomes without harmful subsidies.

Basic opportunity

A second wave of negotiations on fisheries subsidies is expected during the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference next February in Abu Dhabi. This conference represents an invaluable opportunity to better protect the oceans.

In anticipation of this meeting, we urge countries to adopt more ambitious regulations that eliminate harmful subsidies, while prioritizing sustainable fisheries and ocean equity.

Harmful subsidies to fisheries are not only unsustainable, they are grossly unfair. Based on a wide range of evidence, the WTO should agree to eliminate harmful subsidies once and for all.

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