Fishing should never be subsidized

Milan Ilnyckyj in shadow

The economic case for government subsidies can be made in one of two ways. The first is the argument based on externalities: the idea being that one person’s behaviour creates benefits for others, but that those others do not compensate the actor. An example might be a landowner who refrains from cutting down trees uphill from rivers. All river users benefit from the flood control and lack of silt. In this case, it might make sense for the government to pay the landowner to save the trees – in providing the subsidy, the government encourages a more socially optimal behaviour. This justification doesn’t work for fisheries. Fisheries are a common property resource and, as such, tend towards over-exploitation. Having fishers catch more does not provide anyone else with benefits; indeed, it harms the ability of everyone else to use marine resources. Subsidizing fishing pushes fishers to continue catching fish even beyond the point where it would normally be unprofitable, leading to further depletion.

The second argument for subsidies is the ‘infant industries’ argument. The idea here is that it can take a while for a new business to reach the level of existing businesses in the field. A brand new textile industry in an African state may not initially be able to produce goods at a cost and level of quality competitive with existing industries in Asia. In such cases, you can justify a temporary program of subsidy, intended to get the industry running. Once again, this doesn’t apply to fisheries. If anything, there is too much fishing capacity in the states that subsidize heavily (North America, Europe, and Japan). Excess fishing capacity is being exported into developing states, depleting the resources there.

The one form of subsidy that can be justified in relation to the fishing industry is subsidized training to get out of it. We can recognize that fishers are having an increasingly difficult time making a living, while also recognizing that subsidizing their fuel or equipment will just batter fish stocks further. The solution is to help people to transition into other industries where they can sustain themselves without depleting pools of resources common to everyone. It is always hard for politicians to say that an industry should be smaller, or should not exist at all, but, in the case of fisheries, that is probably the only position that makes economic and ecological sense.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

40 thoughts on “Fishing should never be subsidized”

  1. Another form of subsidy that is justifiable is to pay fishermen not to fish. It’s also insane, but sometimes we need to balance sanity against electoral constraints.

  2. A third possible justification is public support for fishery subsidies, though that might lessen somewhat if people appreciated how harmful they are.

  3. RK

    There is no obvious reason why public support is the justification for a harmful thing. If something isn’t harmful or not harmful then public support is a good justification.

    Like, for example, public support is a good reason to fund the arts – but not a good reason to put a freeway through an unspoiled valley. You should put the freeway through if its the right thing to do, and in this case the people count but not inasmuch as they “support it”, rather inasmuch as it is in their interests. People rarely know their interests.

  4. Public support is, nonetheless, a common and often necessary justification for policy in democratic states. Expensive, cruel and unproductive criminal justice policies are quite often pursued in defiance of the vast majority of expert advice because they command “public support” (which often translates as the support of the right-leaning media who would otherwise try to whip up public hysteria). However, I suspect fisheries are an issue where defying public opinion would be unlikely to seriously damage a national government, in which case one might hope considerations of good policy would take precedence.

  5. Scientific American Magazine – March, 2008
    Fishing Blues
    Without limits on industrial-scale catches, marine populations will continue to collapse

    By The Editors

    If there is any benefit to be salvaged from the disastrous overfishing of the bluefin tuna (see “The Bluefin in Peril,” by Richard Ellis), it’s the spotlight that it shines on the plundering of the world’s marine life. It has been 16 years since the demand for cod led to the collapse of the once superabundant cod fisheries in the North Atlantic off Newfoundland. Disappearing with them were some 40,000 jobs. Seafood Watch, an online information clearinghouse run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, has placed all Atlantic populations of flatfish, including flounder, halibut, plaice and sole, on a list of fishes that it urges consumers to avoid. The list goes on.

    You can’t entirely blame the fishers. Yes, a lot of pirates are out there, taking fish illegally, underreporting their catches, fishing under the flags of countries not party to international fishing agreements. But for many cultures, fishing is a way of life—and sadly, because of overfishing, a hard way to carry on. The lure of dollars—or euros or yen—becomes all but irresistible when the alternatives become ever more limited. As Ellis reports, a single bluefin tuna fetched $173,600 in Tokyo, and prices of a sushi dinner for two in New York City can reach $1,000.

    With that kind of money at stake, it is hardly surprising that industrial-scale technology has caught on, big time. Hooks are paid out on “long-lines” more than 50 miles in length. Factory ships that can hold 1,000 tons of fish store and process the catches. Fishing on such a massive scale can quickly exhaust a fishing ground, but when that happens, the factory ships just move on. As a result, fisheries themselves are becoming ever more remote.

    The bottom of what is known as the continental slope, between 600 and 6,000 feet deep, is home to several species that swim in schools and grow as long as two to three feet. Their presence opened up the continental slope to industrial deep-sea fishing that pays off handsomely. The usual method, known as bottom trawling, is to drag a large cone-shaped net, weighted with 15 tons of gear, across the seabed. The net catches everything in its path, and the gear crushes any 1,000-year-old coral that stands in its way.

    What are the environmental costs? No one really knows—and that is part of the problem. According to Richard L. Haedrich, an ichthyologist writing in a recent issue of Natural History, catch quotas for deep-sea fishes were set “essentially by guesswork, relying on … knowledge of shallow-water species. They took no account of the far slower turnover rates in a typical population of deep-sea fishes.” The predictable result is that two deep-sea species have already been depleted: the orange roughy, formerly known as the slimehead, and the Chilean sea bass, aka Patagonian or Antarctic toothfish. When they’re gone, Big Fishing will pack up and move on once again.

  6. Recent studies indicate that fishery impacts in shelf areas may
    potentially become even worse in deeper water. Due to advances
    in technology and subsidies, fishing capacity is now estimated
    to be as much as 2.5 times that needed to harvest the sustainable
    yield from the world’s fisheries. Up to 80% of the worlds
    primary catch species are exploited beyond or close to their harvest
    capacity, and some productive seabeds have been partly or
    even extensively damaged over large areas of fishing grounds.
    With many traditional, shallow fishing grounds depleted, fisheries
    (especially large industrial vessels/fleets operating for
    weeks/months at sea) are increasingly targeting deep-water
    species on the continental slopes and seamounts. Over 95% of
    the damage and change to seamount ecosystems is caused by
    bottom fishing, mostly carried out unregulated and unreported
    with highly destructive gear such as trawls, dredges and traps.

  7. Trawling has been estimated to be as damaging to the sea bed
    as all other fishing gear combined. Unlike only a decade ago,
    there are now numerous studies from nearly all parts of the
    world, documenting the severe long-term impacts of trawling.
    The damage exceeds over half of the sea bed area of many fishing
    grounds, and worse in inner and middle parts of the continental
    shelves with particular damage to small-scale coastal
    fishing communites. Indeed, while very light trawling may be
    sustainable or even increase abundance and productivity of a
    few taxa, new studies, including data from over a century ago,
    clearly indicate damage to the sea bed across large portions of
    the fishing grounds, and at worst reductions in pristine taxa of
    20–80% including both demersals and benthic fauna. Unlike
    their shallow water counterparts, deep sea communities recover
    slowly, over decades and centuries, from such impacts. Some
    might not recover at all if faced with additional pressures including
    climate change and might lead to a permanent reduction in
    the productivity of fishing grounds. There are now discussions
    ongoing within several bodies including the FAO on developing
    better international guidelines for the management of deepsea
    fisheries in the high seas, but substantial action is urgently
    needed given the cumulative threats that the oceans are facing.

  8. UNITED NATIONS — Planning began here yesterday for a sweeping review of a 1995 treaty on management of migratory fish stocks — a response to recent scientific reports that fishing yields are no longer sustainable.

    Scientists fear that stocks of many prized species — particularly Atlantic bluefin tuna — are in imminent danger of collapse. But governments so far have focused on fisheries management and oversight within Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMO) rather than moving toward a more global and legally binding management regime.

    The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, the U.N. Environment Programme and several private scientific studies indicate that most of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited or overexploited. Harmful fishing practices like bottom trawling have come under fire from conservationists and governments in the past. RFMOs have been criticized for lax rules and weak enforcement, and the European Union has recently come under the spotlight for its failure to combat illegal fishing in its waters.

    “Global consumption of fish and fishery products is likely to increase,” said South Korean representative Park Hee-kwon at the informal discussions here yesterday about a possible 2010 fisheries conference. “Striking a balance between conservation and management on the one hand, and sustainable use on the other, is more significant than ever.”

    But U.N. negotiations on fisheries are proceeding slowly and have at times deadlocked despite evidence of what many scientists believe is a looming food crisis. Western Hemisphere and South Pacific governments appear more willing to accept aggressive regulations, while Asian and European states have demonstrated less urgency in deliberations.

    This year the United Nations is expected to focus mostly on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing on the high seas.

    A resolution adopted by the General Assembly last year called on states to enact strict permitting for their flagged vessels to fish in international waters. The United Nations is also considering drawing up a global list of vessels permitted to operate in the high seas and a “black list” of vessels suspected of illegal fishing practices.

  9. Nine key RFMOs manage the exploitation of migratory fish stocks, the most famous of which are the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) and the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). Some of the regional blocs are considered by conservationists to be reasonably successful, while others, especially ICCAT and other tuna commissions, seem incapable of acting on alarming trends.

    ICCAT in particular is under fire for routinely ignoring the advice of its own scientists and setting European bluefin tuna catch quotas at double the recommended limits. Atlantic bluefin tuna is used almost exclusively for the highest-grade sushi and sashimi and is one of the most valuable fish species in the world.

    Canada floated language yesterday for a U.N. sustainable fisheries resolution designed to put more pressure on tuna RFMOs “to adhere to the best scientific advice, in particular measures to set total allowable catches.”

    Bluefin fisheries in the West Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico have failed to recover to past levels despite a decade of aggressive management efforts by the United States and Canada. A study last year by the Census of Marine Life showed that gulf bluefin migrate and feed in the same fishing grounds as Atlantic bluefin, where they are caught in large quantities by Spanish, French and Italian fleets. Most bluefin is sold for export to Japan.

    Many countries are also pushing for a global review of all RFMOs to identify which are performing the best or worst and to disseminate best practices worldwide.

    The U.N. Conference on Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, otherwise known as the Fish Stocks Agreement (FSA), was drafted and finalized in August 1995 in an attempt to standardize conservation approaches, RFMO practices, scientific research and cooperation and enforcement of regional and international fishing laws. It is largely seen as an addendum to the 1982 Law of the Sea convention, which was designed more to address territorial and navigation issues.

    While not a member of the Law of the Sea convention, the United States was one of the first nations to sign and ratify the FSA, acceding in mid 1996. But membership has been a key problem for the success of the treaty. Whereas the Law of the Sea has 155 full members, the FSA has so far gathered 68 state parties, with the Republic of Korea the last to join in February of this year.

    It is hoped that continuing informal discussions and the 2010 review conference will encourage more members to join. But the key issue looming is how to get governments and RFMOs to rein in illegal fishing, fishing overcapacity and the spread of dead zones that threaten some of the most valuable fishing grounds.

  10. A special report on the sea
    Plenty more fish in the sea?

    Dec 30th 2008
    From The Economist print edition
    No longer: technology has made the elusive and inexhaustible into easy prey

    ““Our analysis”, said the authors, Ransom Myers and Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Canada, “suggests that the global ocean has lost more than 90% of large predatory fishes.” These are the ones, cod, groupers, salmon, tuna and so on, that everyone likes to eat.

    An even gloomier assessment came in an article by 14 academics in Science in 2006. The accelerating erosion of biodiversity, often associated with overfishing, presaged a “global collapse” to the point, in 2048, where all species currently fished would be gone, they said.”

  11. Critics also question whether total ecological recovery really has been achieved as often as Ms Jones and Dr Schmitz suggest, and point to examples where it manifestly has not, such as the cod fishery of the Grand Banks, off the coast of Newfoundland, which collapsed in 1992. Almost two decades on, the cod show no sign of recovery, perhaps because new predators, such as dogfish, now dominate the waters.

  12. Aquacalypse Now
    The End of Fish

    Daniel Pauly

    Our oceans have been the victims of a giant Ponzi scheme, waged with Bernie Madoff–like callousness by the world’s fisheries. Beginning in the 1950s, as their operations became increasingly industrialized–with onboard refrigeration, acoustic fish-finders, and, later, GPS–they first depleted stocks of cod, hake, flounder, sole, and halibut in the Northern Hemisphere. As those stocks disappeared, the fleets moved southward, to the coasts of developing nations and, ultimately, all the way to the shores of Antarctica, searching for icefishes and rockcods, and, more recently, for small, shrimplike krill. As the bounty of coastal waters dropped, fisheries moved further offshore, to deeper waters. And, finally, as the larger fish began to disappear, boats began to catch fish that were smaller and uglier–fish never before considered fit for human consumption. Many were renamed so that they could be marketed: The suspicious slimehead became the delicious orange roughy, while the worrisome Patagonian toothfish became the wholesome Chilean seabass. Others, like the homely hoki, were cut up so they could be sold sight-unseen as fish sticks and filets in fast-food restaurants and the frozen-food aisle.

    The scheme was carried out by nothing less than a fishing-industrial complex–an alliance of corporate fishing fleets, lobbyists, parliamentary representatives, and fisheries economists. By hiding behind the romantic image of the small-scale, independent fisherman, they secured political influence and government subsidies far in excess of what would be expected, given their minuscule contribution to the GDP of advanced economies–in the United States, even less than that of the hair salon industry. In Japan, for example, huge, vertically integrated conglomerates, such as Taiyo or the better-known Mitsubishi, lobby their friends in the Japanese Fisheries Agency and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to help them gain access to the few remaining plentiful stocks of tuna, like those in the waters surrounding South Pacific countries. Beginning in the early 1980s, the United States, which had not traditionally been much of a fishing country, began heavily subsidizing U.S. fleets, producing its own fishing-industrial complex, dominated by large processors and retail chains. Today, governments provide nearly $30 billion in subsidies each year–about one-third of the value of the global catch–that keep fisheries going, even when they have overexploited their resource base. As a result, there are between two and four times as many boats as the annual catch requires, and yet, the funds to “build capacity” keep coming.

    Aquacalypse Now

    Category: Oceans • Seafood • Stylized Substance

    My former supervisor/now boss (and OG of overfishing) has a piece out in The New Republic with the wonderfully garish title of Aquacalypse Now. He explains how the fishing industry can contribute a minuscule amount to the GDP of advanced economies — less than hair salons — and yet have managed to wield a disproportionate amount of political power. Read the whole article here but beware: NOTHING is as bad as harpooning a manatee.

  13. “Today, governments provide nearly $30 billion in subsidies each year–about one-third of the value of the global catch–that keep fisheries going, even when they have overexploited their resource base. As a result, there are between two and four times as many boats as the annual catch requires, and yet, the funds to “build capacity” keep coming.”

  14. Green.view
    Tricks of the trade

    Nov 2nd 2009
    Can the world stop governments from paying for the over-exploitation of fish?

    OVERFISHING erodes future prosperity by destroying today a resource that could yield benefits indefinitely. Yet it is subsidised by billions of taxpayer dollars, euros and yen. Now a new chance to halt this insanity has emerged in the unlikely form of climate-change negotiations.

    Landlubbers hand pots of money to fishermen. Rashid Sumaila, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, estimates that in 2003 (the most recent year for which data are available), the world’s fishing subsidies were $25 billion-30 billion. The value of fish landed in the same year was $82 billion. Furthermore, Dr Sumaila reckons that $16 billion of the subsidies either promote overcapacity by helping fishermen buy new or bigger boats or encourage overfishing by subsidising fuel.

    In theory, this problem could be sorted out by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). But the issue has languished over the years and the current Doha round of trade negotiations remains moribund. Oceana, an environmental pressure group, argues that the subsidy of fisheries should now be “decoupled” from the Doha round.

    Victor do Prado, deputy chief of staff at the WTO, thinks the chances of that happening are slim. “Fisheries is part of the overall Doha mandate,” he says. “As long as this issue is treated within the WTO it is difficult to decouple it from the rest of the round dossiers. What would countries like Japan and Korea be gaining by decoupling?” In other words, a global deal on fisheries subsidies is unlikely because countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Spain—all of which have large fishing fleets—do not want to cut subsidies.

  15. When I asked one of Canada’s Department of Fisheries biologists for his summation of the current state of affairs, he lost his temper.

    “You bloody well know it’s game over! Not just in the northwest Atlantic but in every ocean in the world! Everywhere! Species after species is being reduced to remnants. The fishing industry’s so d…esperate they’re dredging up rat-tails from the abyssal deeps. The only cod being processed and sold in Canada and the U.S. these days comes from Russia, and they have damn near cleaned out their stocks. When the fish companies have caught every goddamn thing with a fin or a scale they’ll suck up the plankton and make it into ersatz fillets. Who’s going to stop them? Not you or me. Sure and hell not governments, including the one I work for. Nobody’s going to stop it as long as there’s a buck to be made out of it!”

    Farley Mowat’s “Sea of Slaughter” p. 411

  16. How to stop fishermen fishing

    Of all the sea’s many problems, overfishing should be the most fixable. Here’s how

    ACIDIFICATION, warming, the destruction of coral reefs: the biggest problems facing the sea are as vast, deep and seemingly intractable as the oceans themselves. So long as the world fails to cut its emissions of greenhouse gases, cause of the global warming behind these troubles, they will grow. By comparison, overfishing, another great curse, should be easier to put right, especially in the coastal waters where most fishing occurs. And yet it goes on, year after year.

    Fishermen have every reason to do something. Many fisheries are hurtling towards collapse; stocks of large fish have been reduced by up to 90%. When stocks are overfished, they yield a smaller catch. The cost of mismanagement, in lost economic output, is huge: some $50 billion a year, according to the World Bank.

    One reason why the pillage continues is that knowledge of fish stocks is poor, especially in developing countries. A new statistical attempt at estimating the remaining shoals (see article), from the University of California, Santa Barbara, is therefore welcome—even if that is not true of its findings, that stocks are even more ravaged than previously thought. The study found that better-understood fisheries are likelier to be healthy. Another reason for overfishing is new technology (developed, aptly enough, for battlefields), which makes shoals easier to detect. As large boats and refrigeration have spread, fishing fleets have covered greater distances and hoovered up larger catches. Because technology lets fishermen fish with less effort, it disguises just how fast the stocks are depleting.

  17. The World Bank announced on Friday a global alliance to better manage and protect the world’s oceans, which are under threat from over-fishing, pollution and climate change.

    Oceans are the lifeblood of the planet and the global economy, World Bank President Robert Zoellick told a conference on ocean conservation in Singapore. Yet the seas have become overexploited, coastlines badly degraded and reefs under threat from pollution and rising temperatures.

    “We need a new SOS: Save Our Seas,” Zoellick said in announcing the alliance.

    The partnership would bring together countries, scientific centers, non-governmental groups, international organizations, foundations and the private sector, he said.

    The World Bank could help guide the effort by bringing together existing global ocean conservation programs and support efforts to mobilize finance and develop market-mechanisms to place a value on the benefits that oceans provide.

    Millions of people rely on oceans for jobs and food and that dependence will grow as the world’s population heads for 9 billion people, underscoring the need to better manage the seas.

    Zoellick said the alliance was initially committed to mobilizing at least $300 million in finance.

    “Working with governments, the scientific community, civil society organizations, and the private sector, we aim to leverage as much as $1.2 billion to support healthy and sustainable oceans.”

  18. That these turn out to be exceptional cases is unsurprising. The rapacious habits of fishermen and perverse effects of the subsidies some extract from governments are well known. Sometimes overfishing stems from ignorance and sometimes from short-termism, exacerbated by the belief that whatever they don’t take, others will. The cost is enormous. Besides harbouring millions of species, fisheries provide the primary source of protein for a billion people and livelihoods for hundreds of millions, most of them poor. The World Bank reckons that benefits (such as income and food) lost by overfishing between 1974 and 2008 amount to $2.2 trillion.

  19. Take overfishing. The industrialisation of fishing fleets has massively increased man’s capability to scoop protein from the deep. An estimated area equivalent to half the world’s continental shelves is trawled every year, including by vast factory ships able to put to sea for weeks on end. Yet what they are scraping is the bottom of the barrel: most commercial species have been reduced by over 75% and some, like whitetip sharks and common skate, by 99%. For all the marvellous improvements in technology, British fishermen, mostly using sail-power, caught more than twice as much cod, haddock and plaice in the 1880s as they do today. By one estimate, for every hour of fishing, with electronic sonar fish finders and industrial winches, dredges and nets, they catch 6% of what their forebears caught 120 year ago.

  20. WITH over 4,000km (2,500 miles) of coastline, it is no surprise that fishing is one of Chile’s leading industries. Its commercial catch is the world’s seventh-largest. Following a period of brutal overfishing, Chile set up a quota system in 2001, which helped stocks stabilise. However, that law expires at the end of 2012. The government has yet to devise a new system that satisfies everyone.

    All these disputes must be settled soon in order to protect Chile’s fragile fishery. From 1995 to 2011, the jack mackerel catch fell by 94%. Some scientists say the stock will need a century to recover.

  21. Rebuilding global fisheries would make them five times more valuable while improving ecology, according to a new University of British Columbia study, published July 13 in the online journal PLoS ONE. By reducing the size of the global fishing fleet, eliminating harmful government subsidies, and putting in place effective management systems, global fisheries would be worth US$54 billion each year, rather than losing US$13 billion per year.

    “Global fisheries are not living up to their economic potential in part because governments keep them afloat by subsidizing unprofitable large scale fishing fleets with taxpayer money,” says study lead author Rashid Sumaila, a fisheries economist and director of the UBC Fisheries Centre. “This is like sinking money into a series of small, cosmetic fixes in an old home rather than investing in a complete, well thought-out renovation that boosts the home’s value.”

    Despite the US$130- to US$292-billion price tag for transitioning global fisheries, the study’s authors estimate that in just 12 years, the returns would begin to outweigh the costs and the total gains over 50 years would return the investment three- to seven-fold.

  22. The world’s current fishing capacity is estimated to be up to 2.5 times more than what is needed to land the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY). This suggests that to rebuild global fisheries, we need to trim excess capacity from the current 4.3 million fishing boats . Assuming that current capacity is between 1.5 and 2.5 times the level needed to maximize sustainable catch, fishing effort needs to be reduced by between 40 and 60 per cent, or up to 2.6 million boats. Fisheries currently employ more than 35 million people globally. If we simplify by assuming linearity between boats and people, this implies that between 15 and 22 million fishers would need to be moved to other livelihood activities in order to rebuild global fisheries. This is a challenge, but one that is surmountable. For instance, even though in some fisheries most fishers may see fishing as a way of life and therefore may not want to exit fishing, it has been reported that up to 75% of fishers in Hong Kong would be willing to leave the industry if suitable alternatives or compensation were available. Similar sentiments are likely to also occur in many other countries. In any case, it is better to undertake this transition as part of a rebuilding policy rather than having it forced upon us through loss of resources

  23. By the 1980s the herring had become scarce. Yet the tides that make the Clyde perilous for mariners also stir up nutrients, making it rich in biodiversity. So the fishermen turned to other species—saith, cod, plaice and sole—assisted by bigger engines and new dredgers. The Clyde fleet, based in Carradale, Girvan and other small ports along the Firth’s 100km stretch, could now fish deeper, for longer, and even in rocky places.

    Politicians, who had once tried to husband the Clyde’s bounty, helped the slaughter. During the late 19th century trawling had been banned in most of the Clyde to combat the effects of overfishing. But later governments reversed that logic. As the trawlers fished out unprotected parts of the Clyde, they opened the protected parts. In 1984 the last serious protection, a ban on trawling within three nautical miles of the shore, was lifted by the courts. By the turn of the century there were scarcely any adult shoals left in the Clyde. These days, excluding a summer flush of mackerel, it is hard to find any big fish at all. Hugely reduced, the Clyde fleet now scrapes the seabed for scallops and prawns, a difficult enterprise that is destroying the habitat upon which hopes of regeneration depend. Only five small boats operate out of Carradale, employing a dozen men. “In just 20 years,” remarked an old fisherman in Girvan, “we knackered the Clyde.”

  24. Governing the oceans
    The tragedy of the high seas
    New management is needed for the planet’s most important common resource

    The first target should be fishing subsidies. Fishermen, who often occupy an important place in a country’s self-image, have succeeded in persuading governments to spend other people’s money subsidising an industry that loses billions and does huge environmental damage. Rich nations hand the people who are depleting the high seas $35 billion a year in cheap fuel, insurance and so on. The sum is over a third of the value of the catch. That should stop.

  25. Though the fuel needed to get to the high seas is pricey, taxpayers often pick up part of the tab in the form of government subsidies. Such subsidies, combined with overexploitation of fisheries closer to land, have made the high seas attractive to fishermen. The consequence, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, is that they, too, are being pillaged. Already, two-thirds of their stocks are being fished beyond sustainable limits and, as they once provided a haven for fish everywhere, yields in EEZs are suffering, too.

    Translating these numbers into fishing practice can be hard. For example, two species with the same unfished biomass may, because of their ways of life, be under different levels of strain from net-casters. Fishing optimally for one might threaten the other. But data on by-catch—species netted that are not a boat’s main quarry—which would illuminate such differences, are difficult to come by, for countries are often loth to share them.

  26. Overfishing is a tragedy of the commons, with individuals and countries motivated by short-term self-interest to over-consume a limited resource. By one measure, the share of fish stocks being fished unsustainably has risen from 10% in 1974 to 33% in 2015. Governments make things worse with an estimated $22bn of annual subsidies that increase capacity, including for gear, ice, fuel and boat-building. One study estimated that half of fishing operations in the high seas (waters outside any national jurisdiction) would be unprofitable without government support.

  27. Fishy business
    The Galapagos islands face an invasion of trawlers
    A new treaty is the best hope of stopping it

    China claims the vessels belong to independent companies it does not control. But there is no way Chinese ships would go all the way to fish around Ecuadorian waters without government subsidies and technical support, says Max Bello of Mission Blue, an ngo based in California. China’s distant-water fishing fleet is the world’s largest but it is not the only country to have one. Taiwan, South Korea and America subsidise theirs, too. Global Fishing Watch, another American ngo, says much of the industry would collapse without subsidies.

  28. At sea, technology can help. Electronic monitoring promises a technological revolution on board—Australian and American fleets are leading the way. Cameras combined with machine learning can spot suspicious behaviour and even identify illicit species being brought on board. They should be compulsory as a condition of access to the exclusive economic zones that define a country’s control over resources such as fish. They should also be made compulsory even when vessels are on the high seas. Equally, national regulators should set basic labour standards at sea. If countries fail to follow the rules, coastal states should bar their fishing fleets from their waters. Fish-eating nations should allow imports only from responsible fleets.

    Above all, governments should agree at the WTO to scrap the subsidies that promote overfishing. Of the $35bn a year lavished on the industry, about $22bn helps destroy fish stocks, mainly by making fuel too cheap. Do away with subsidies and forced labour, and half of high-seas fishing would no longer be profitable. Nor would that of China’s environmentally devastating bottom-trawling off the west African coast. Such abuses would disappear overnight. Some of the money that was saved could help restore coastal fisheries for millions of small-scale fisherfolk—underwriting temporary moratoriums on fishing and creating no-catch zones. And it could help establish fish farming, nourished by insect larvae. Fishing does not have to be a fishy business.

  29. In 2018, the most recent year for which relevant data are available, people consumed more fish than they did either pork or beef or poultry. Humanity’s appetite for the sea’s bounty has more than doubled since 1990. Fish, whether wild caught or farmed, now make up nearly a fifth of the animal protein that human beings eat.

    This paradoxical approach, which involves the creation of so-called marine protected areas (MPAs), has already been demonstrated on several occasions to work locally. Valuable fish stocks off Apo island in the Philippines increased significantly after a no-take reserve was created in 1982, and similar results have been forthcoming off the coasts of Florida, South Africa and St Lucia. Extrapolating from these examples, Reniel Cabral of the University of California, Santa Barbara and his colleagues have, as they describe in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, built a model which explores the idea of extending MPAs elsewhere. If the right extensions are picked, their model suggests, designating a mere 5% more of the world’s oceans as mpas—which would triple the area protected—could increase the future global catch of the 811 species they looked at by more than 20%. That corresponds to an extra 10m tonnes of food a year.

    Setting the rules for an MPA is, by contrast, easy. You stick up a metaphorical sign that says, “No fishing”. Knowing who is breaking the rules is easy, too. If your gear is in the water, you are fishing illegally.

  30. More formal rules are coming, at least on paper. China’s latest five-year plan for the industry, published earlier this year, promised to crack down on iuu fishing and to more tightly control the size of distant-water fleets. But it was short on detail, and though there is official talk of capping the numbers of vessels, there is little suggestion of reducing them.

    A recent agreement at the wto, meanwhile, aims to cut global fishing subsidies. Once again, China is the world’s biggest subsidiser of fishing operations, paying around $2bn a year for things like fuel subsidies and tax incentives to build new boats. Local authorities in China have announced limits on cheap fuel, sometimes in return for paying fishermen for observing no-fishing periods. But the changes do not apply to distant-water vessels. In March China actually increased subsidies to two state-owned tuna firms.

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