”We must protect the fish”


Researchers: EU is heading in the wrong direction with fisheries subsidies

Over the past 20 years, the EU has gradually got rid of fisheries subsidies that can harm fish stocks. In a new study from the University of British Columbia researchers warn that the positive trend now is about to be broken.

– Now, there is a window of opportunity to reform EU fisheries subsidies. It could affect how the rest of the world handles fisheries subsidies in the future, says Rashid Sumaila, professor of marine and fisheries economics and head of unit at the UBC Institute for the Ocean and Fisheries in Vancouver.

But time is crucial, he says. The window is closing.

EU fisheries subsidies are largely paid for through the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF). In total, Member States share about six billion euros over seven years. Intensive negotiations are currently underway on how the money will be distributed during the next program period 2021–2027.

Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization (WTO) will negotiate new global rules for fisheries subsidies. In that process, the EU can play a major role and influence countries in the right direction, away from capacity-enhancing subsidies that can damage fish stocks, says Rashid Sumaila.

– What worries me is that for the first time in 20 years, the EU seems to be heading in the wrong direction, he says.

Rashid Sumaila
Rashid Sumaila, professor of marine and fisheries economics at University of Bristish Columbia.

Harmful subsidies about to be reintroduced

In a new study, published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, Rashid Sumaila and his research colleagues show that the EU fisheries subsidy system has long gone in the right direction. In 2000, more than 60% of total European subsidies were classified as capacity-enhancing. This year, that figure is down to about 30 percent.

– Unfortunately, that positive trend seems to be breaking now. For example, they are now trying to take back harmful subsidies that have previously been removed, says Rashid Sumaila.

In their proposals for the next EMFF period, Parliament and the Council want to reintroduce subsidies for the construction of new fishing vessels - a subsidy that was removed as early as 2004.

– Financing new fishing vessels is a capacity-enhancing and harmful subsidy that can contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, says Rashid Sumaila.

The European Parliament also wants to increase the budget for on-board investments, while the Council in its proposal avoids earmarking subsidies for measures to protect and restore marine biodiversity and ecosystems.

– If these proposals go through, it is definitely a step backwards, says Rashid Sumaila

Can lead to overfishing

In the study, Sumaila and his research colleagues distinguish between three different types of subsidies:

  • Capacity-enhancing – for example fuel subsidies and support for shipbuilding and ship improvements
  • Beneficial – support for investments to improve and restore fish stocks through conservation measures, management and research
  • Ambiguous – support that can lead to either positive or negative effects on fish stocks, depending on how they are designed and used.

Capacity-enhancing subsidies are defined as grants and initiatives that reduce fishing companies' costs and/or increase their revenues. This can be anything from tax-exempt fuel to subsidies for engine replacements and repairs.

In the study, the researchers refer to extensive research on how subsidies affect fish stocks and the fishing industry – and their conclusion is that capacity-enhancing subsidies can lead to overcapacity and overfishing.

– Capacity-enhancing subsidies become harmful when they help a fishing fleet or an individual vessel to catch more fish and make a bigger profit than they would have made if the subsidies did not exist, says Daniel Skerritt, marine ecologist at UBC and one of the authors behind the study.

Balancing profit and sustainability

According to Daniel Skerritt, the basic problem concerns the balance between economic profit and ecological sustainability.

– As soon as you give fishermen artificial help to increase their profits, you shake this important balance. Capacity-enhancing subsidies make it possible for fishers to continue fishing on fish stocks that are below sustainable levels, he says.

Without capacity-enhancing subsidies, fishing pressure would be self-regulated by nature and the economy. When a fish stock becomes so weak that it can no longer support a certain number of fishing boats or certain catch levels, fishing becomes unprofitable and is forced to adapt.

– By removing these subsidies, hopefully we can eventually return to a balance where sustainability and profit meet, says Daniel Skerritt.

Challenging to explain

Skerritt and Sumaila have spent decades studying fisheries subsidies, and are both convinced that there is sufficient scientific evidence to say that capacity-enhancing subsidies contribute to overcapacity and overfishing. But in discussions with decision-makers, they are sometimes still met with skepticism.

– As researchers we need to become even better at showing how and why these subsidies harm fish stocks, says Daniel Skerritt.

A major challenge is the lack of empirical data.

– Much of our research is theoretical – as most economic science usually is – but now we actually have a lot of real-time examples, especially when it comes to fuel subsidies, he says.

A political dilemma

The perhaps most difficult challenge arises when science meets reality, says Rashid Sumaila. Many decision-makers truly understand the problems of capacity-enhancing subsidies and how they can harm fish stocks in the long run, but they sometimes have a harder time accepting the short-term socio-economic consequences of ending them.

–  If the subsidies are removed, many fishermen will be forced to stop fishing. What do you do with the availability of food, the jobs, people's rights to have an income? This is a political dilemma that I meet everywhere I go in the world, he says.

– I say we should broaden the perspective and look outside the fisheries sector. These problems cannot be solved by insisting that people stay in the fishing industry.

We need to work at all levels

Within the EMFF, there are subsidies for fishermen who want to stop fishing permanently. But to fundamentally reform the system and get rid of all capacity-enhancing subsidies, greater and coordinated societal investments will be required in, for example, education and other short-term support for fishers who lose their livelihoods, says Rashid Sumaila.

– We need to work at all levels, globally and nationally, to save both fish stocks and fishermen. But the starting point is that we must protect the fish. Because without fish, there will be no fishing, he says.

Facts: The UN SDGs ban capacity-enhancing subsidies

Through the sub-goal 14.6 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the countries of the world have agreed to ban fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing by 2020. However, this spring it was clear that three of the four UN goals for saving the oceans will not be met. The deadline has therefore been postponed until 2030.