Funding destruction: we need to talk about fisheries subsidies

A tuna catch on a fishing vessel. Image © UN Women - Ryan Brown

By |2020-10-22T11:05:13+00:00October 20th, 2020|Fish, Fisheries, Food, Ocean, Oceans|Comments Off on Funding destruction: we need to talk about fisheries subsidies

Fishing for human consumption is thought to be the biggest driver of biodiversity loss in our oceans, according to the recent Living Planet Report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Seafood is an important part of the diet of more than 3 billion people, and fisheries and aquaculture provide employment for around 60 million. However, our global fisheries are not sustainable. One particularly alarming forecast published in the journal Science in 2006 predicted that the world would run out of wild-caught seafood by 2048.

However, governments around the world are paying subsidies to keep unsustainable, industrial fisheries operating in the oceans, fisheries that would otherwise be financially unviable. How can this be? Anna Heath explains.

Far off the east coast of New Zealand in the wild and remote waters of the southwest Pacific Ocean, there is a collection of colossal under-sea volcanoes which act as magnets for marine life. Rising up from the seafloor, these ‘seamounts’ are renowned for supporting a vast array of deep-sea species, many of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. One particular fish which calls these seamounts home is the orange roughy, or ‘slimehead’ as it was once known (thanks to its special ability to ooze mucus from canals in its head). This extraordinary fish, like many deep-sea creatures, lives life in the slow lane – it is estimated to live up to 150 years old, and does not reproduce until it is 20.

It is across the surface of this unique habitat that massive deep-sea trawlers are dragged, targeting large gatherings of the highly vulnerable orange roughy. The slow and drawn-out life cycle of this fish means that its populations collapse quickly, and the high levels of bycatch (accidental catches of non-target species) associated with trawl fisheries mean that it is not even just the orange roughy, but countless other species that are destroyed for the sake of this catch. But the real kicker, and the focus of this blog, is that the vast majority of deep-sea trawl fisheries such as this one would not even be profitable without the subsidies they receive from governments.

Orange Roughy, one of the most commercially fished deep-water species. Orange Roughy can live for around 150 years and do not begin to breed until they are around 25 years old, making them extremely susceptible to over-fishing. Image: NOAA OKEANOS EXPLORER Program, Gulf of Mexico 2014 Expedition.

Tax payers’ money funds marine destruction

That’s right, you didn’t misread that: governments of countries around the world are using tax payers’ money to fund the mass destruction of marine life, to the tune of around USD 35 billion per year. This is estimated to be equal to 30 to 40 per cent of the total value of fish caught globally each year. At first glance, this may seem like a good thing. Fishing is an important source of revenue for coastal communities around the world, and these subsidies may be supporting cultural traditions and protecting small-scale fisheries from the financial insecurity of relying on unstable fish stocks. However, an astonishing 84 per cent of fisheries subsidies are estimated to go to industrial fisheries. This means that rather than supporting small-scale fisheries, the majority of subsidies are instead paying for industrial fleets to deplete the resources relied upon by millions of people globally (see this film by the Environmental Justice Foundation on how industrial subsidies have impacted artisanal fishers in Ghana). Subsidies which go towards increasing the capacity of fleets to catch more fish are very aptly named ‘perverse’ fisheries subsidies – these make up nearly 60 per cent of subsidies given out globally.

It has been widely recognised that fisheries subsidies are a key driver of global overfishing, to the point where eliminating ‘harmful’ fisheries subsidies by 2020 is a goal under the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals. However, due in large part to the complexity of why fisheries subsidies exist, little progress has been made towards this goal.