Governments sponsor over-fishing of world’s oceans

Inadequate, and sometimes illegal, government policies towards subsidies are causing over-fishing of the world’s oceans, according to a new report launched by the European Policy Centre and the WWF Endangered Seas Campaign.


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According to Fishing in the Dark, published on 28 November, governments around the world are still sponsoring over-capacity of fishing fleets through ill-aimed subsidies, despite the fact that 60% of fish stocks are over-fished or fished to the limit. The situation is worsened, says the report, by a lack of transparency of subsidy policies, resulting in poor public accountability on how tax-payers’ money is spent.

“Oceans that were once full of commercially exploitable fish stocks are, quite frankly, running out of fish, and over-fishing is the cause of this catastrophe,” said Tony Long, Director of WWF’s European Policy Office.

Subsidies are one of the main driving force behind the over-capacity of the world’s fishing fleet, which is currently two and a half times the size it needs to be in order to sustainably fish the oceans, said Niki Sporrong of WWF Sweden. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that 6.3 billion Euros (£39 billion) are being spent annually on fishing subsidies around the world, with the EU, Japan, China, and the US being among the biggest spenders, says Sporrong. According to WWF the figure is more likely to be 15 billion Euros (£9 billion), but estimate that it could even be as high as 24 billion (£15 billion). In the EU alone, WWF has calculated that, in 1997, 14,000 Euros (£8,600) in subsidies were spent on each fishing boat.

The form that the subsidies take varies from country to country, says Sporrong. “There are grants to modernise vessels and to build new boats. There is money to buy fishing rights in other countries’ waters. We also pay vessel owners to relocate their vessels to waters outside the EU, for example. There are fuel tax exemptions. There is money for development of new products and marketing in the fishing industry. There is money spent on decommissioning of boats and development of new fishing methods, and there is also price support money for fish catch.”

Subsidies seldom work as they are intended to, says Sporrong. Between 1990 and 1997, the EU spent 298 million Euros (£182 million) to assist fisher men to relocate their boats outside Europe. However, according to the European Court of Auditors, this did not lead to significant relocation. The auditors found other faults in the European subsidy system, including payments to five boats that had sunk. However, with no uniform system of reporting subsidies across the EU, it is very difficult to work out how much fishing subsidy is being spent and what it is being used to pay for, according to WWF.

Subsidies are often being used to increase fishing fleet capacity, says WWF. In one example, Sweden spent 43 million Krona (£3 million) on renewal of the country’s fleet, almost 44 times what it was spending on decommissioning, said Sporrong. In the US, there are 200 million Euros (£122 million) locked into a tax-deferred fund which can only be used to expand their oversized fishing fleet, says Sporrong. “Governments need to invest more money in the transition to sustainable fishing rather than underwriting the current over-fishing,” she said.

One of the big problems with subsidies is this lack of transparency, says WWF. Good information on fishing subsidies is not available to the public, said David Schorr of WWF’s Endangered Seas Campaign. “With rare exceptions, governments fail to tell the whole truth about their massive payments to the fishing industry. In some cases WWF believes these failures actually contravene domestic or international legal obligation that requires greater disclosure.” World Trade Organisation (WTO) member states are obliged to notify the WTO of their subsidies to fishing fleets. However, when WWF conducted an index of compliance two years ago, they found that less than 10% of subsidies were properly notified.

Today, says WWF, the situation is unchanged. The worst offender is Japan, says Schorr, with the United States coming in second place. A few years ago, concerned about the level of subsidies and over-fishing, the US Congress convened a task force to investigate the situation, said Schorr. Despite the support of fisheries officials, the industry, and conservationists, the total lack of data meant that the investigation was unable to come up with answers.

The situation is no better in the EU, despite the requirement of a Directive for transparency on environmental information. In the past six months, the WWF launched a fact-finding initiative into fishing subsidies among nine Member States, plus Norway and Iceland. With just a couple of exceptions, WWF was very disappointed in the response, said Schorr. Greece, Italy and Spain gave no answer at all, or a flat refusal. Germany, The Netherlands and the UK gave timely but incomplete information, with the former two countries declaring that such information is confidential. Only Sweden and Finland gave complete answers.

“WWF believes that those countries which have failed to respond or who have given partial responses have not met their legal obligations under prevailing laws,” said Schorr.

Nevertheless, WWF is keen to emphasise that it is not against subsidies per se, especially where they are used to soften transition. Questions must always be asked, says Long, as to who receives money; what it is paid for; whether it is going to those who need it the most; whether it is being used to decrease structural capacity; and to ensure that funds are having their intended consequences.

As a result of its investigations, WWF recommends that:

  • citizens must be given an effective right to know how their money is being spent;
  • governments should set up monitoring and reporting systems for subsidies, with independent verification;
  • there should be effective public participation, including from fishing communities, as to who should receive support and how it should be applied.

“Without effective transparency and accountability, many fishing subsidies are probably doing precisely the opposite of what they are intended to do,” said Long. “Many are probably doing more harm than good.”

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