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How the world subsidizes overfishing, in two charts

You get a boat, and you get a boat, and you get a boat...

By now, plenty of people are familiar with fossil fuel subsidies — the hundreds of billions that governments spend to bankroll the burning of oil, gas, and coal. We've also heard plenty about farm subsidies that can promote unhealthy food or destructive practices. Scaling back these programs has been a major priority of reformers over the years.

Now we can add another bête noire to the list: fishing subsidies.

A recent paper in Marine Policy estimates that governments spend more than $35 billion a year to subsidize fishing activities worldwide. The majority of these taxpayer subsidies — around $20 billion — contribute to overfishing by making it artificially cheap to hunt for fish. That enables bigger trawlers to fish the ocean for longer, stressing fish populations beyond what's sustainable.

Given that about 30 percent of the world's fish stocks are already overexploited, this is a real problem. If we want to ensure that there are enough fish around for future generations, subsidy reform wouldn't be a bad place to start.

The world spends $20 billion a year to make fishing artificially cheap

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

The authors of the Marine Policy paper tried to tally up all the different government funds used to support the fishing industry around the world. And they found that not all subsidies are alike. They lumped the funds into three broad categories:

1) Subsidies that boost sustainability. The first category includes any programs that promote the sustainability of fish stocks — basically, subsidies to help ensure that we don't plunder every last fish in the oceans. This includes fisheries management, regulations on fishing, and scientific research on fish populations. The world spends about $11 billion per year on these "good" subsidies.

2) Subsidies that promote fishing. Second, there are subsidies considered potentially harmful, because they can contribute to the overexploitation of fish stocks. These "capacity-enhancing subsidies" allow fishermen to fish more cheaply — beyond what the market allows. That may include, for instance, government support for building bigger boats or buying gear, tax breaks on fuel, and so on. The world spends about $20 billion per year on these programs, with fuel subsidies making up about half this amount.

Study co-author Wilf Swartz explained how these subsidies can have adverse impacts: "Capacity enhancing subsidies support the industry, but, potentially, they allow fishers to continue to fish when there may not be fish available. They do not ensure sustainability of the stock nor the industry they are intended to support. They allow fisheries to continue to invest in themselves while the stocks are being diminished by overexploitation."

3) Subsidies with unclear effects. Finally, there are a group of programs that might have either positive or negative effects — experts still aren't quite sure. This might include things like programs to buy back old fishing licenses. In theory this reduces the number of boats out on the water, but it's unclear if this actually reduces pressure on fishing stocks. These programs add up to about $4 billion per year worldwide.

The United States actually spends the most on sustainability

There's a lot of variation between countries on subsidies. The United States, for instance, actually spends relatively little to subsidize fishing itself — but instead spends the most on fisheries management, regulations, and other sustainability programs:

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

This shouldn't be too surprising. A few years ago, I took a longer look at how the US had become something of a model for fisheries management.

Back in the 1980s and '90s, many of America's fish populations were collapsing to dangerously low levels. Some of New England's best-known groundfish stocks — including flounder, cod, and haddock — had collapsed, costing the region's coastal communities hundreds of millions of dollars. The amount that US fishermen were catching each year was actually declining. It was a disaster.

Then Congress stepped in. In 1996, lawmakers revised the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs fisheries management in federal waters, and required that all overfished stocks in US waters be rebuilt within 10 years. In 2006, Congress strengthened this requirement further. Different regions set up different programs to limit overfishing, from catch shares in Alaska to flat limits in the Northeast.

The results haven't been perfect, but they have been encouraging. Back in 1999, NOAA listed 98 US fish stocks as "overfished." Today, that's down to 37 (and falling). Concerted efforts to promote sustainability worked.

Unfortunately, not every country around the world has been equally prudent. According to paper in Marine Pollution Bulletin, the best-managed fisheries around the world — the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Iceland — only make up about 16 percent of the global catch. In parts of Asia and Africa, the rules around fishing are often considerably laxer, and there's a real worry that fish populations are being harvested unsustainably, leading to dangerous depletion.

Fixing that will be a tough, complex task. But the authors of the Marine Policy paper argue that eliminating the $20 billion a year worth of harmful "capacity-enhancing" subsidies that promote overfishing would be a good start. Basically, the world should be spending more to ensure that fisheries are managed in a sustainable manner — rather than spending public funds to yank every last fish out of the ocean and leave less for future generations.

Further reading

-- How the US stopped its fisheries from collapsing

-- It's also worth noting that the much-maligned Trans-Pacific Partnership would actually phase out some of the more harmful subsidies for illegal fishing among the 12 countries that are part of the deal. There's a lot of ongoing debate about the TPP's environmental impacts, but this provision generally gets high marks from conservation groups.