Nearly 90% of the world’s fisheries are exploited at dangerous levels, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization.
If current fishing trends continue, there’s a good chance that fish populations across the world will become so depleted that wild fish will no longer be a reliable source of food in the years ahead.
Since more than 3.1 billion people around the world depend on protein from fish, this would be catastrophic.
At the United Nation’s Ocean Conference next month, marine advocates hope to change the dynamics of this sprawling industry that generates roughly $150 billion in annual revenue and employs 57 million people in order to reverse those dangerous trends
One proposed tactic seems especially simple: end subsidies.
The global fishing industry is propped up and fueled by around $35 billion in subsidies each year.
“If you consider that the total export of fish and seafood products is $146 billion, we are talking about that, of each $5 in fish products, $1 is subsidized,” David Vivas of the UN Conference on Trade and Development recently told reporters in Geneva.
“So it's not a small amount. People are paying very expensively for a fish,” he said. “They pay it by the dish and with their taxes.”
By far the most significant target of the plan to end subsidies is China, the world’s largest exporter and consumer of fish. Most major fishing countries, including the US, Spain, and Japan, all lavishly subsidize the fishing industry, but not on the scale of China.
To both satisfy the enormous demand of its population and to keep the industry going strong, the Chinese government provides $22 billion in subsidies each year. Subsidies are used for building ships, fuel, incomes, and more. Additionally, tens of millions in subsidies are given to cities that foster the industry, and even more is given in tax breaks.
Ending these subsidies would cause the industry to recalibrate and potentially shrink to a sustainable level. There would certainly be push back from the industry, as millions of jobs depend on the subsidies, but if the subsidies continue unchanged, then the fishing industry will almost certainly collapse when there are no more fish to catch. So the loss of jobs now saves more jobs in the future.
It would also curb the practice of Chinese fishing vessels traveling to foreign waters, especially throughout Asia and Africa, to meet catch quotas by plundering another country’s waters.
In Senegal, for instance, Chinese ships are so large that they catch as many fish in one week as a Senegalese vessel can catch in a year.
This sudden influx of illegal Chinese fishing crews has pushed the region’s fisheries to perilous levels, and robs West African countries of roughly $2 billion in revenue each year, according to an analysis by the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.
Ending subsidies is a strong step toward sustainable fishing on a global level, but it also has to be joined by international cooperation on policing waters and quota systems, according to the UN.
If all the countries of the world abide by catch limits and punish offenders, then global fisheries will remain viable for the foreseeable future.
And there are signs that the biggest players are coming around.
“The era of fishing any way you want, wherever you want, has passed,” Liu Xinzhong, deputy general director of the Bureau of Fisheries in Beijing, told The New York Times. “We now need to fish by the rules."