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Billions in fishing subsidies finance social, ecological harm, report finds

Chinese and Guinean crew sort through fish on a Chinese fishing vessel in Guinea. Image by Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace.

  • A new report found that the world’s top 10 fishing nations are spending billions of dollars on harmful fishing subsidies to not only exploit their own domestic waters, but to fish in the high seas and the waters of other nations.
  • Experts say these subsidies are propping up fishing industries that would not be viable without financial support, and contributing to overcapacity, overfishing, and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
  • The report also found that harmful fishing subsidies could also be leading to food security issues in some of the world’s least-developed countries where foreign fleets surpass domestic fleets in terms of subsidies and catches.
  • The issue of harmful fishing subsidies will be addressed at an upcoming meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) that will take place online on July 15.

A new report shows that the world’s top fishing nations are using subsidies worth billions of dollars to exploit the high seas and the waters of other nations, including some of the world’s least-developed countries.

Published by researchers at the University of British Columbia and supported by the NGO Oceana, the report takes a shrewd look at “harmful fishing subsidies,” payments made by governments that allow fishing fleets to operate beyond their normal capacity. The researchers found that 10 countries — China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, the U.S.A., Thailand, Taiwan, Spain, Indonesia and Norway — spent more than $15.3 billion on harmful fishing subsidies in 2018, which has likely contributed to a number of social, economic and ecological issues.

About 60% ($9.2 billion) of these harmful fishing subsidies used by these 10 nations were spent on domestic fishing, while 35% ($5.4 billion) was spent on traveling long distances to fish in the waters of 116 other nations. The remaining 5% ($800 million) was spent on fishing in the high seas, which are parts of the ocean beyond any nation’s jurisdiction.

China was found to be the top provider of harmful fishing subsidies, worth about $5.9 billion, followed by Japan at $2.1 billion and the European Union at $2 billion.

Kathryn Matthews, chief scientist at Oceana, says the report shows the scale and magnitude of harmful fishing subsidies, which can transfer the risk of overfishing from one place to another.

“It was reasonably well understood by the community that works on this issue that there were countries that were heavily subsidizing their fleets,” Matthews told Mongabay. “What we didn’t know was where those fleets were going, and how much money they were taking with them to the waters of other countries.”

Fishermen selling fish in pirogues off the coast of Congo. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

‘Race to the bottom’

Matthews says the report’s findings are concerning as they show that wealthier nations could be stripping away food security from low-income countries by outpacing their fishing activities.

According to the report, catches made by foreign vessels in the waters of low-income countries tend to be greater than domestic subsidies and catches. For instance, in Sierra Leone, where people rely on fish for about 80% of their animal-sourced protein intake, foreign fishing subsidies exceed domestic subsidies by 10 to 1, and foreign vessels catch twice as much fish. In an extreme example, foreign fishing subsidies exceed domestic subsidies in the coastal nation of Guinea-Bissau by a ratio of 1,173 to 1, and foreign fleets catch three times as much fish.

These issues are compounded by the fact that host countries often lack the resources to properly manage, monitor and control fishing activities conducted by foreign fleets, according to the report. This can result in unsustainable fishing practices and even illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which not only has social economic issues, but ecological issues as well.

The report also suggests that harmful fishing subsidies can be worth as much as 50% of the catch value. “This calls into question whether these activities are viable without the provision of such levels of harmful fisheries subsidies,” write the authors.

“Subsidies are a wonderful disguise that you can put on the ocean to make it look like the fishing is more viable than it actually is,” Matthews said.

Daniel Pauly, fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia and a member of the board of directors of Oceana, but who was not directly involved in the study, says that fishing subsidies can encourage fishing in areas where stocks have already been depleted and prevent any kind of recovery. For instance, he says that harmful fishing subsidies allow countries like China, Japan, Taiwan, Spain and France to competitively fish for tuna in the Pacific, despite ailing tuna stocks.

“That is really a race to the bottom,” Pauly told Mongabay. “These fisheries don’t have to be concerned about the fact that they don’t catch enough fish to finance the operation, because we, the taxpayers, are financing.”

These problems are exacerbated by issues of slavery on board fishing fleets, which acts as a form of subsidization itself, Pauly said. However, he added that it is not viewed as such.

“If you can have … people who come on board and cannot leave, and you don’t have to pay them, you are talking about a subsidy,” he said. “And the police not intervening and the international community tolerating this is a form of subsidization as well.”

The MARGIRIS KL749, a Lithuanian super trawler, 30 miles off the coast of Mauritania. Image by Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace.

‘Pushing a boulder up a hill’

There is also an ongoing problem with governments not being transparent about how much they spend on subsidies and where the subsidies are going, Matthews says.

“Without transparency, there’s no way that we’re ever going to have a true understanding of the impact of these big industrial fleets that are far from their own countries’ waters … if every time we need to go out and find this information [by] digging through paper records, digging through data in a scientific databases of catch, trying to estimate subsidies programs by looking at the shadow that they cast, but not at any actual transparent reporting by the government itself,” she said. “We will always be pushing a boulder up a hill.”

While there are transparency issues in many of the top fishing nations, China’s subsidy program seems to be particularly opaque. Tabitha Mallory, CEO of the consulting firm China Ocean Institute, who was not directly involved in the new report, says information about China’s fishing subsidies have been historically presented in what’s referred to as “yearbooks.”

“They used to report their subsidies in the Chinese yearbook series, and [the information] would be a little more than half a page, and one of the annoying things is that it was all in prose and … you had to put it into tabular format yourself,” Mallory told Mongabay.

While China’s reporting process has evolved over the years, she says there continues to be a lack of transparency. For instance, there is little information about whether fuel subsidies are going to domestic fleets or distant-water fleets, and subsidy tracking tends to be left up to municipalities rather than being conducted at a central level.

“My colleague and I have been working on this [new] report and we’ve just been trying to get some reporting from the municipal levels to fill in some gaps and estimate what [harmful fishing subsidies] would be for the whole country, and it’s just really challenging — because there’s just not comprehensive or clear reporting on subsidies,” Mallory said.

This obscureness makes it difficult to verify the efficacy of China’s new sustainability rules, she added.

“China will say that they’re doing all of these environmentally friendly policy updates, but if it is accompanied by this lack of transparency in terms of their financing, it’s just really hard to see if that’s accurate,” she said.

Fisherman on board a Chinese fishing boat hauling the net. Image © Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace.

‘We can’t keep putting this off’

Experts and conservationists say they hope the issue of harmful fishing subsidies will be properly addressed at an upcoming meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which will take place virtually on July 15. The WTO actually began discussions of harmful fishing subsidies in 2001, but little has been done to confront the issue in the past 20 years, Matthews says.

In a recent press release, the WTO said its members aim to reach an agreement at the upcoming meeting that will curb harmful fishing subsidies that are driving overcapacity, overfishing and IUU. Santiago Wills, Colombia’s ambassador to the WTO, even introduced a draft text to facilitate upcoming discussions.

“I sense a change in mood and we should seize advantage of that mood to push towards concluding these negotiations,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the WTO’s director-general, said in a statement.

Matthews says she hopes that an agreement will indeed be reached at the upcoming meeting and that action is quickly taken.

“There is urgency now, because even if we take action now, we still have some more years before we start to see the full impact of the agreement, and it also takes years for those overexploited fisheries to come back,” Matthews said.

“We can’t keep putting this off,” she added. “We will eventually run out of runway, and end up falling off a cliff.”


Skerritt, D. J., & Sumaila, U. R. (2021). Assessing the spatial burden of harmful fisheries subsidies. Retrieved from Fisheries Economic Research Unit website:

Banner image caption: Chinese and Guinean crew sort through fish on a Chinese fishing vessel in Guinea. Image by Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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