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5 ways harmful fisheries subsidies impact coastal communities

Our planet’s health—and our own well-being—is dependent on a vibrant ocean rich with natural resources. Oceans provide but must also thrive. Sustainable fishing can be an effective way to balance the needs of people and nature by protecting complex, interconnected ecosystems while providing food security and livelihoods for coastal communities. But there is one big barrier in the way of this vision: taxpayer-funded support for unsustainable fishing operations.

An estimated $22 billion is spent by governments every year to offset the cost of expenses such as fuel, fishing gear, and building new vessels. And these payments that prop up the fishing industry and drive overfishing around the world have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable coastal communities. Here’s how:

1. More effort, less catch

The world’s fishing vessels have the capacity to catch more fish than ever before thanks to huge increases in the number of vessels and engine power. Still, global catch has been flat since the late 1980s. That means that on average the 40 million people who directly depend on fishing for a job are spending more time and resources to land the same amount of fish. It is often coastal fishermen who are seeing their fishing efforts go unrewarded and their incomes fall.

2. Dwindling resources

Increased fishing effort has had a devastating impact on fish stocks. The number of overfished stocks globally has tripled in half a century and today fully one-third of the world's assessed fisheries are currently pushed beyond their biological limits, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Declines are felt in smaller catches overall, smaller size of fish and often far less desirable species in the net.

3. Creating a competitive disadvantage

In places like coastal west Africa and the south Pacific, local fishermen working out of small vessels are being forced to compete with massive subsidized foreign vessels that send their catch abroad. The result is plummeting incomes and higher food prices in communities that depend on fish as their primary source of protein.

4. Bad decisions get baked into policy

Subsidies often favor fuel-intensive fishing and larger scale vessels. Such subsidies are doubly harmful by encouraging the wasteful use of fuel and supporting destructive fishing practices, such as deep-sea trawling. But once subsidies are baked into government policy, the rules are very hard to change.

Huge subsidies provide the economic incentive to continue fishing even when fish are stocks are already declining and fishing is no longer profitable. This means that it will be much more difficult for much-needed efforts to rebuild stocks through catch controls and improved management to be successful.

5. Subsidies benefit illegal activities

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a driver of declines in fish populations and harmful subsidies exacerbate the problem. Experts estimate that billions of dollars in government funding every year goes to support the illegal fishing activities of distant water fleets that steal resources and security from coastal communities. Illicit operations are often connected to human trafficking and slavery at sea, which also disproportionately affect the most vulnerable coastal communities.

The time to end harmful fisheries subsidies is now. The World Trade Organization (WTO) is negotiating an end to harmful subsidies in the fishing sector but they have been at it for far too long.

WWF is one of nearly 60 organizations that have called on the WTO to reach an ambitious agreement in 2019. That deadline is unlikely to be met. The WTO must now meet the challenge in the coming months with real urgency and the political will to end taxpayer funding for the depletion of ocean resources. If those funds can be used for improved governance and fisheries management the reward will be a healthy and productive marine environment, abundant fish populations and sustainable livelihoods for years to come.