The Latest Science Supports Ending Harmful Fisheries Subsidies

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Grants help propel distant water fishing fleets to remote areas (File image courtesy US Coast Guard)

Posted on 11 May 2022 13:07 by

Reyna Gilbert and Kat Millage







Two decades ago, when we were both in elementary school, the World Trade Organization (WTO) began negotiating an agreement to cut harmful fishing subsidies – the payments that induce industrial fishers and artisanal to increase fishing beyond sustainable levels. . For many years, government leaders – relying on anecdotal evidence from their constituents – had a general feeling that a WTO decision to cut these subsidies would increase vulnerable fish stocks. Unfortunately, they had little evidence to support this belief. But now they do. Thanks to technological advancements over the past two decades, solid science shows that a WTO agreement to end destructive fishing subsidies could reduce overfishing and help threatened fish populations recover. There are only a few weeks left before the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC12), where an agreement could be reached. This is an opportunity that should not be passed up.


As policy experts and millennial scientists, we and our colleagues have conducted research showing the potential impact of an agreement on marine life. A bioeconomic model developed by the Environmental Markets Lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara reveals that the WTO’s most ambitious subsidy reform, the one that removes all harmful subsidies, could lead to an increase of 12.5 % of fish biomass by 2050. That means up to 35 million metric tons of fish – and possibly more – in the sea, nearly four times the fish consumption of North America in 2017 (the most recent year for which reliable data is available).


Although the current draft negotiating text is unlikely to achieve this ambitious result, scientific advances, such as the online tool SubsidyExplorer, have enabled policymakers to compare the impact of different proposals to consideration in order to be able to craft a final WTO agreement that stimulates fish populations as much as possible. This tool, which did not exist when negotiations began in 2001, draws on the latest data, including from organizations such as Global Fishing Watch, and provides long-term forecasts of each policy reform scenario of the WTO.


The SubsidyExplorer is one of many innovations that can help governments reduce subsidies and rebuild fish populations. Others include the Global Fishing Watch database, which uses new satellite technology and machine learning to monitor sea fishing. British has also created a global database of subsidy figures reported in public expenditure records and estimates created by models. And advances in open source programming and software development have helped create interactive online data visualizations that, in turn, can help inform decision makers.


These innovations are important because they enable equitable access to data and greater transparency for the public, governments and the media. Data from better reports has revealed that the sum of harmful subsidies provided by governments continues to rise, and that countries that provide their fishing fleets with large amounts of harmful subsidies are fishing in the farthest waters (DWF ) – fishing that takes place outside their territory. national jurisdiction in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of other countries, and even on the high seas.


New research also reveals that harmful subsidies enable major fishing nations to strengthen their advantage over the water: China, the European Union, Japan, South Korea and Chinese Taipei are responsible for about 1, $5 billion in harmful subsidies that support their fishing in foreign countries. EEZ. This estimate does not include the subsidies that allow them to be fished on the high seas. However, the analysis reveals that these same five political entities spend at least $3.6 billion – and possibly more – to subsidize their efforts on the high seas. sea. The all-new interactive DWF Subsidy Atlas, another science-based resource designed to support WTO subsidy negotiations, allows users to see the spatial distribution of DWFs around the world and the magnitude of subsidies provided to support these efforts.


When negotiations began in 2001, only one overall subsidy estimate had been published, and its figures were crude and limited to the North Atlantic. But now, with the help of big data and advances in technology, policymakers have proof that ending harmful fisheries subsidies can lead to more fish in the sea. They can also see how much governments are spending to feed their DWF fleets and where these fleets fish.


These global and national estimates, combined with the clear research linking subsidies and overfishing, mean there is no excuse for waiting any longer for multilateral policy reform. In the few weeks that separate us from MC12, WTO members must be ambitious. While a strong subsidy agreement is only one tool in the fight against overfishing, the principle of following science in all ocean governance decisions, including at the WTO; national and regional fisheries management; and at other levels – is absolutely essential to support sustainable fisheries in the future. And science shows that for fish stocks to begin to recover, governments must stop handing out harmful subsidies that encourage overfishing in larger areas of the ocean.


Decision makers have the data; now they have to use it. In 20 years, we have both gone from children in love with the environment to adults working to preserve it. The WTO can’t wait two more decades to stop funding overfishing: To ensure healthy fish stocks for future generations, the WTO must strike a deal to cut harmful fishing subsidies now.


Reyna Gilbert is Senior Associate of The Pew Charitable Trusts Harmful Fisheries Subsidies Reduction Project and Kat Millage is Project Researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she provides data science and modeling support to many different ocean-related projects.



The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.



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