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Government subsidies serving to prop up destructive high-seas fishing: study

A commercial fishing trawler at work. NOAA is tasked with preventing the crash of fishing stocks due to the combined catches of commercial, charter and recreational fishermen. NOAA's latest report to Congress at the end of 2016 states that the U.S. overfishing list included 30 stocks, but that 444 stocks or complexes are not presently being overfished. Photo courtesy of NOAA News April 15, 2015, Attribution 2.0 Generic

  • More than half of fisheries on the world’s high seas would be running a loss without the billions of dollars in government subsidies that keep the ecologically destructive industry afloat, a recent study suggests.
  • The researchers described the annual subsidies as being far in excess of the net economic benefit from fishing in these international waters.
  • They called for greater transparency by governments and substantial reforms of high-seas fisheries in a bid to improve the management of the industry they labeled as ecologically and economically unsustainable.

Much of the fishing that takes place in international waters would be unprofitable without the billions of dollars in subsidies pumped in by governments to sustain the ecologically destructive industry, a recent study has found.

International waters, or the high seas, are not governed by any one international body or agency, and account for nearly two-thirds of the ocean’s surface. There is currently no comprehensive management structure in place to protect the marine life that relies on them.

Researchers poring over information for fishing in these zones in 2014, the most recent year for which complete datasets are available, concluded that 54 percent of high-seas fishing would be in the red if not for governments covering some of the industry’s costs.

In their study published June 6 in the journal Science Advances, the researchers noted that labor exploitation and underreported catches could also explain how some operators could afford to keep fishing in the high seas, where species like tuna are often overfished, and migratory sharks — 44 percent of which are threatened species — are often killed as bycatch.

“While our analysis is for a single year, the slight increase in high seas catch and revenue, coupled with the high and constant price of fuel between 2010-2014, suggest that our estimate of profits is likely to be representative of, or slightly higher than, the average state during the first half of this decade,” the researchers wrote.

Heat map of global fishing activity in 2016. Image courtesy of Global Fishing Watch.

Using data from new satellite technologies that track fishing vessels, the researchers pegged the total costs of high-seas fishing in 2014 at between $6.2 billion and $8 billion.

The total fisheries catch in these waters was estimated at 4.4 million metric tons, with aggregate revenue of $7.6 billion, the report said, suggesting that the margin for the industry ranged between $1.4 billion in profits to $364 million in losses.

Meanwhile, they estimated that governments subsidized high-seas fisheries to the tune of $4.2 billion that same year, “far exceeding the net economic benefit of fishing in the high seas.”

This led to the conclusion that the industry was far from profitable, thereby necessitating government support.

“One would think that subsidies are used to help industries in trouble; this is the case in the high seas, because without subsidies more than half of the fishing would not be economically rational,” Enric Sala, executive director of the National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas project and lead author of the study, told Mongabay in an email.

Some government subsidies for fishing are put to good use for activities such as sustainable fisheries management, regulation enforcement, and empowerment of small-scale fishers. However, the subsidizing of the high-seas fishing industry amounts to “a blatant case of corporate welfare, where powerful industrial lobbies also fish for taxpayer’s money to increase their profits,” Sala said.

Sala and his team estimated that some 10 million hours of fishing occur each year across up to 57 percent of the high seas, or an area spanning 132 million square kilometers (51 million square miles).

They identified fishing hotspots near Peru, Argentina and Japan, which were dominated by Chinese, Taiwanese and South Korean squid fishing fleets. They also found that deep-sea bottom trawling, a common practice in high-seas fishing that destroys ocean ecosystems, was prevalent in the northern Atlantic, while tuna fleets abounded in the central and western Pacific.

Purse seine vessels use a large bag-like net, which they close around an entire school of fish. Image courtesy of C. Ortiz Rojas/NOAA.

Five countries accounted for 64 percent of the global high-seas fishing revenue: China (21 percent), Taiwan (13 percent), Japan (11 percent), South Korea (11 percent) and Spain (8 percent). The researchers estimated that China and Taiwan accrued most of the losses in high-seas fishing without government subsidies.

The paper also raised the possibility of individual fishing companies catching more than they reported to fisheries agencies, hence making more money than they claimed while still pushing governments for subsidies.

“Governments should not subsidize activities that perpetuate overfishing and destruction of the marine environment,” Sala said.

The researchers have called for more transparency by governments and substantial reforms of high-seas fisheries in a bid to improve the management of an industry that they label as ecologically and economically unsustainable.

“This implies that through targeted subsidy reforms, we could save taxpayers money, rebuild fish stocks, and eventually lead to higher value, lower volume fisheries,” said co-author Christopher Costello, a professor of resource economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The World Trade Organization in December 2017 was expected to reach an agreement to stop subsidizing illegal fishing activities, but the delegates failed to reach a deal due to procedural hurdles. They instead agreed on a new goal for reaching a comprehensive fisheries subsidy by the time of the next ministerial conference in 2019.

Some of the authors of the new report have suggested that closing large areas of oceans to fishing activity — including the entire high seas — could both achieve conservation goals and increase the economic benefits of fishing migratory species, particularly when they are overfished.

The ecological benefits of not disrupting high-seas ecosystems — the economic value of carbon storage alone in these waters is estimated at $74 billion to $220 billion a year, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts — could far outweigh the value of high-seas fishing, which accounts for just 6 percent of global catches.

The United Nations General Assembly last December started negotiations to create an international treaty to protect the marine environments of the high seas. The negotiation process, spread across four meetings, will kick off in September this year, and the final text of the treaty is expected by the end of 2020.

“We have a great opportunity to protect big chunks of the high seas, which would help the marine environment, but also make sense economically,” Sala said.

Banner image of a commercial fishing trawler at work, courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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