Scrap devastating fishing subsidies to help save the ocean and climate

The World Trade Organization resumed talks on fishing subsidies this week. Originally, it committed that by the end of 2019 it would prohibit the subsidies that are causing overfishing and damaging the life of the ocean. But despite the urgency, it failed to meet this deadline. This has significant implications for life in the ocean, the health and livelihoods of poor coastal communities in developing countries and climate change

Annabelle Bladon's picture
Insight by 
Annabelle Bladon
Annabelle Bladon is a researcher in IIED’s Shaping Sustainable Markets research group
15 January 2020
A fishing trawler

A diesel-fuelled trawler in Kerala, India. Fuel subsidies encourage larger boats and fishing on the high seas. (shankar s.CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr)

After years of delays and false starts, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has an opportunity to make long overdue progress towards agreeing an end to harmful fishing subsidies. 

Globally, governments spend an estimated US$35 billion a year on fishing subsidies. Most finance large-scale, industrial fisheries and are one of the main causes of overfishing and the decimation of marine ecosystems. They also contribute to the climate crisis. 

After nearly 20 years of talks, in 2017 the WTO committed that by the end of 2019, it would prohibit subsidies that enable fishing fleets to become so large and powerful that they damage the life of the ocean. Despite the urgency, it failed to meet this deadline.

Although some subsidies are beneficial, including those for fisheries management and monitoring programmes, the vast majority are not.

In 2018, governments spent about $22 billion – 63% of all fisheries subsidies – on efforts to increase catches, such as securing access to distant waters and subsidising fuel costs. Not only do these encourage overfishing, they are biased towards industrial fisheries and undermine small-scale fishing’s economic viability, increasing the gap between rich and poor.

Small-scale fishing, most of which takes place in developing countries, supplies 50% of the world’s seafood and employs more than 90% of fishers. Despite this, they only receive a quarter of the annual subsidies that industrial fishers receive. 

Subsidies are fuelling CO2 emissions

Marine fisheries – particularly industrial operations – rely heavily on fossil fuels. In 2016, global marine fishing fleets emitted more than 200 million tonnes of CO2 from onboard fuel combustion alone. That is almost as much as Belgium and Nigeria’s combined annual carbon emissions.

Add the emissions generated from such indirect sources as vessel construction, ice production, refrigeration, processing, packaging and transportation, and its total carbon emissions are even higher. 

Despite a dramatic decline in global marine fish catches since the mid-1990s, global fuel emissions from fishing fleets have been steadily rising. Although small-scale fisheries have rapidly become more fuel intensive, the overall rise in emissions is primarily due to industrial fishing’s growth in capacity stimulated by subsidies. 

Twenty-two per cent of global fisheries subsidies are spent on fuel. Because they reduce the substantial cost of fuel, industrial fishers can travel greater distances and fish for longer using such fuel-intensive methods as bottom trawling and dredging. By scrapping these subsidies, the cost of travel alone would make most high seas fishing unprofitable. 

Low-income communities hardest hit

Not only are subsidies devastating fish stocks and causing emissions to rise, they are also contributing to poverty and malnutrition. In 1974, 10% of fish stocks were overfished, by 2015 this figure rose to 33%.

This has had a profound impact on people in low-income coastal and small island nations who depend heavily on marine resources for protein and income. In 2000, an estimated 20 million people worldwide could have avoided malnutrition if the trend in overfishing was reversed. 

What’s more, the most fuel-intensive fishing methods tend to be the most environmentally destructive. The more fish stocks decline, the more fuel-intensive fishing operations become, and the more emissions are released.

These emissions are driving changes in the climate that are impacting marine and coastal ecosystems at an unprecedented rate and scale, as the latest IPCC report on the ocean shows. It threatens the livelihoods and food security of vulnerable coastal communities around the world, while hundreds of millions of women, children and men are being displaced by sea level rise and increasingly extreme storm surges. 

The WTO needs to agree a set of rules that ends harmful subsidies, meaning fishers will need to adopt more fuel-efficient and environmentally sustainable practices. Subsidy reform would also free up money that governments could invest in rebuilding fish stocks and supporting vulnerable groups and small-to-medium sized enterprises in their transition to sustainable practices. 

This year is a watershed for tackling the climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis. Reforming fisheries subsidies would be a significant step forward in both areas. This first in a series of meetings over the next six months gives the new WTO chair, Colombia’s ambassador Santiago Wills, the opportunity to reinvigorate negotiations. It is critical that he does not delay further – the ocean cannot wait.

The blog was originally posted on the Thomson Reuters Foundation website.