In 17th Century Holland, 800 boats, employing some thousands of men, caught the same tonnage of fish that a single modern trawler, employing a handful of men, now catches.
That kind of progress has been a large part of the reason for the successful overfishing of so many of the world’s fisheries. Along with lack of quotas, or with quotas set far higher than advising scientists propose, that success has in turn been supported by the government incentives – by subsidies.
Governments underwrite the costs of converting from small fishing boats to larger ones, from old equipment to new technologies. They compensate fishermen when they don’t catch fish. They buy back the boats when the fisheries finally crash. Tax relief includes exemption from sales tax, tax free fuel, accelerated depreciation, and deferred tax programs. And there’s more: import quotas, fees to fish in foreign waters, and price support if the market gets soft.
Subsidies now add up to approximately the same amount as the market value of the fish. This has been going on now for decades, and there may have been good reasons for some of it in the beginning. But not now. Removing the subsidies would go long way toward developing truly sustainable fisheries.
Now, perhaps, this will change. In Paris, in early June, the second annual European Fish Week was held, leading up to a proposal for revising the Common Fisheries Policy later in the summer. Representatives from the different countries did something unusual. They told each stories about the past richness of the fisheries, 50 to 100 years ago. Then they called for a restoration of such abundance. To assist the return to sustainable fishing, it looks like they will call for elimination of the the heavy subsidies.
Past abundance probably cannot be recovered, but sustainable fishing must be possible, so the potential changes in the Common Fish Policy are critical. The Common Fisheries Policy started up in 1983, so its track record is horrible as European fisheries continued to crash. Now that so much has been lost, some real action may occur: reasonable quotas enforced, major subsidies eliminated. Maybe even something more radical may emerge.
The EU fleet is the world’s third largest, and the EU is the largest importer of fish from other countries. There is an opportunity here not just to enhance the sustainability of European fisheries, but to be a model for the world. That would be truly radical.
How alone is the EU in even talking about the elimination of subsidies? The world Trade Organization effectively controls fisheries subsidies, and encouraged by Oceana, has developed a policy for reducing them – but it is still to be implemented. An EU initiative, one that is real rather than just more fantasy, will be very helpful.
The elimination of subsidies of course comes with costs. But consider the alternative: a few fishermen, in a relatively few large ships owned by a few companies who are subsidized by government aid and incentives catch all the fish and make all the money. Then everyone loses – communities and fisheries.