Harmful fisheries subsidies push species to extinction, fuel food insecurity, and worsen the climate crisis.

Chinese trawler

For every day that passes without an agreement to end subsidies that drive overfishing, fish populations shrink, coastal communities lose vital livelihoods and food security, and the ocean suffers.

Harmful fisheries subsidies mean industrial fishing can continue well beyond the point of over-exploitation. Over 60% of the $35 billion spent every year on fisheries subsidies is harmful, meaning it’s linked to overfishing, overcapacity or illegal fishing. This results in industrial trawlers hoovering up the catch of small-scale fishers who can’t compete with the artificially low operating costs of these vessels.

In fact, other nations provide twice as much funding for their vessels to fish in African waters as African nations do themselves, transferring the risk of overfishing to the countries that can least afford it.

By 2010 we’d already wiped out 90% of large fish like tuna, salmon and halibut. But the smaller fish people depend on are also being driven to the point of collapse. These fish populations are vital to the food security of coastal communities and entire nations. In Liberia, for example, 80% of people are dependent on fish for essential dietary protein.

Our investigations at the Environmental Justice Foundation have found that the nations subsidising the ongoing exploitation of collapsing fisheries are directly driving food insecurity, unemployment and, in some cases, illegal fishing in regions already under the most pressure from the crisis in our ocean.

In Ghana we’ve documented Chinese-owned vessels, which receive subsidies from China’s government, fishing illegally in the nation’s waters. This brings additional layers of destruction and exploitation to a country already experiencing extensive illegal fishing — endangering livelihoods, food security and national security.

Global Ramifications

However, it would be a grave mistake to assume that this is only a problem for specific nations. By keeping fishing fleets out in over-exploited parts of our ocean, and by consistently keeping the pressure up in waters that have long since run out of economically viable fishing opportunities, harmful fisheries subsidies drive key fish populations closer to disappearing forever.

This threaten more than the sustainability of fisheries; there are broad implications for the climate crisis. The big fish extracted from fisheries would otherwise sink to the deep ocean on death, sequestering the carbon in their bodies away from the atmosphere. Globally, 43.5% of the extraction of this “blue carbon” comes from areas that would be unprofitable to fish without subsidies, to say nothing of the climate impacts of the fuel burned to reach them.

Ultimately, this is self-destructive, short-term thinking. The nations funding harmful fisheries subsidies are paying to make themselves, and all of us, worse off in the long run. We’re all poorer if the ocean is stripped of life. Bringing it back to sustainability is a global challenge for all nations — one they can and must solve together.

Taking the leaden weight of harmful fisheries subsidies from struggling fish populations would allow our ocean to recover, boosting the abundance of fish in the sea with positive outcomes for our ocean and for the people who depend on it.

An Opportunity for Leadership

Ambassador Peter Thomson of Fiji, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, has highlighted that ending harmful fisheries subsidies is the single most effective short-term action we can take to turn around the decline of ocean environments.

And there’s an opportunity to do just that right now. At the World Trade Organization meeting this month, negotiators have an unrivalled opportunity to showcase their leadership and vision by sealing a deal to end these subsidies and protect our ocean.

By doing so they can advance the Sustainable Development Goals, and make progress on resolving the climate crisis, the defining ecological, economic and social emergency of our time.

If they fail to take action, ending harmful fisheries subsidies should continue to be a global priority. By keeping more fish in the sea, coastal communities would be supported, more carbon would be retained in the ocean, and marine ecosystems could start to regenerate.

The solution is clear, and the need is urgent. To support people, to let fish populations recover and to ensure a level playing field for everyone, it’s long past time to end harmful fisheries subsidies.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Revelator, the Center for Biological Diversity or its employees.

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Steve Trent

is CEO and founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation and has more than 30 years' experience in environmental and human rights campaigning. He also cofounded WildAid, serving as president for over a decade and leading WildAid’s work in China and India.