Destructive fishing subsidies

Posted: 30 June 2006

According to recent research published by scientists Ransom A. Myers and Boris Worm of Dalhousie University of Canada, all of the world's large ocean-going fish - including tuna, cod, marlin, halibut, and sharks - have been decimated by overfishing. The researchers compiled a half century of data, back to the onset of large-scale fishing techniques in the 1950s, and found that 90 per cent of the populations of all large ocean fish species has disappeared.

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This destruction is no accident. For years the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and some conservation groups have warned of the effects of overfishing by high-tech fishing fleets. Yet, neither the fishing industry nor governments have been able to impose meaningful limits. The new study, published in the May 15 2003 issue of the journal Nature, outlines a cycle of destruction - each new species targeted by fishing fleets have been reduced by 80 percent in just 15 years.

"This is a classic case of the tragedy of the commons," says Jonathan Lash, President of the World Resources Institute, "each fishing fleet is harvesting as much and as quickly as possible until the resource is depleted. He lists the factors driving the fishing industry to undercut its own livelihood as:

  • Fisheries have been poorly managed, and governments have allowed fleets to fish without giving populations a chance to recover.

  • Technologies, from long-line fishing to sonar and satellite-based global positioning systems, allow vessels to easily target and deplete fish populations.

  • In addition, there are simply too many fishing vessels and too few fish - the global capacity of the fishing industry is 140 per cent the level that would be necessary to sustainably manage catch from fisheries.
"Perhaps the most disturbing factor driving the destruction of the ocean's large fish, however, is that a number of governments have been subsidizing this destruction for years, to the tune of billions of dollars," he says.

Taxpayers from Japan, the European Union, the United States, China, Korea, Canada, Indonesia, and a number of other major fishing nations have been paying cumulatively $10 - $15 billion dollars every year to support a bloated fishing industry, according to estimates from the FAO. All told, subsidies may account for more than 25 percent of the $56 billion global trade in fish.

Industry tax write-offs, ship-building assistance, job supports, fuel rebates, and a host of other fishing-industry tax breaks have artificially sustained more fishing vessels than the oceans can sustainably support, according to a 2001 review of global data on fishing subsidies by the World Wildlife Fund.

Japan, the largest subsidizer of fishing fleets, provides $2 to $3 billion annually to its fishing industry for capital and infrastructure investments, insurance, and tax deferrals and credits. Russia, which once had the largest fishing fleet in the world, pays $600 million annually to help scrap old ships and replace them with modern trawlers. The United States spends nearly a billion dollars on fishing industry subsidies each year, including a $150 million tax rebate on diesel fuel for fishing ships.

Eliminating these billion-dollar handouts would go a long way toward alleviating pressure on beleaguered fisheries.

Unless governments drop their massive subsidies and further reduce the capacity of their fishing fleets, it is unlikely that the ocean's fisheries will get a chance to recover.

Extracted from a commentary by Jonathan Lash, President of the World Resources Institute and published by © WRI Features. Reproduced with kind permission.Related link:WRI Project: Marine Protected Areas: Fish for the Future?