Back to School: Can the EU Learn from Others on Fishing Subsidies?

Planet Tracker Back To School

At the end of last week, EU legislators reached an agreement on the expenditure of EUR 6.1 billion (USD 7.4 billion) which is to be allocated to fisheries and aquaculture for 2021 to 2027 through the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF).  Half of the funds are still classified as “harmful” since they finance capacity-enhancing programmes. The World Trade Organisation negotiations on harmful fishery subsidies also failed, ending hope of achieving Sustainable Development Goal 14.6 on time.

In contrast, the 14 members of the UN High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy committed to ending harmful subsidies and sustainably managing 100% of the ocean area under their national jurisdiction by 2025. Therefore, all hope is not lost, especially as SeaBOS, a coalition of ten of the largest seafood companies pledged to four measurable goals for promoting a more sustainable ocean by 2021.

Funded Fleets and Missed Targets

In 2018, the fisheries sector received almost EUR 30 billion (USD 37bn) in subsidies globally, EUR 19 billion (USD 23bn) of that as harmful subsidies that increase the fishing capacity of mainly large, industrial fleets and contribute to the overfishing and fish stock decline.[i] To mitigate the effects of harmful subsidies time-bound objectives were developed in the form of UN Sustainable Development Goals. Specifically, the aim of SDG 14.6, with a deadline at the end of this year was to “prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the World Trade Organization (WTO) fisheries subsidies negotiation”.[ii]

Subsidies are often divided by academia into three groupings:[iii]

  • Beneficial investments which promote fishery management and protection
  • Ambiguous funding which can have positive or negative effects on sustainability
  • Harmful programmes which encourage fishing above sustainable levels, leading to natural capital decline from overexploitation

WTO members failed to reach an agreement on curbing harmful fisheries subsidies by the 2020 deadline. A new schedule for 2021 is being developed and is dependent on the role of key states, such as the EU, in reaching a final agreement.[iv]

The EU is the second largest subsidiser of fisheries in the world, handing out EUR 3.25 billion (USD 4bn) in 2018, of which at least EUR 1.7 billion (USD 2 billion) were considered harmful subsidies.[v] The decision on how to spend the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund will impact the EU’s position in negotiating a global agreement to end harmful fisheries subsidies at the WTO level.

Figure 1 Img

Figure 1. Comparison of Fishery Subsidies by Region in 2018.[vi] SCAC stands for South, Central America and Caribbean.

The news from the European Union is, unfortunately, not so promising. At the end of last week, EU legislators reached a provisional agreement on the expenditure of EUR 6.1 billion (USD 7.5 billion) which is to be allocated to fisheries and aquaculture for 2021 to 2027 through the EMFAF.[vii]

On the positive side, at least 15% of the money will be spent on efficient fisheries control and enforcement, including fighting against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Our earlier research, Time to Rock the Boat’ focused on the need for the EU to enforce existing rules to bring transparency and sustainability to the fishing industry.[viii] In addition, proposals to improve crew wellbeing and to provide support to a company if its fishing activities cease permanently and the equivalent fishing capacity is permanently removed from the EU fishing fleet register, are to be applauded.

On the negative side, however, this new round of funding promotes growth of the fishing fleet. The EU, through the EMFAF, will finance vessel upgrades and the acquisition of fishing vessels or their partial ownership. Progress has been made on reducing capacity-enhancing subsidies, which represented 60% of all EU subsidies in 2000, but only 30% by 2020.[ix] Yet the European Commission has long recognised that ‘too many vessels chase too few fish’,[x]

Although not finally signed off, a verbal agreement is already in place and this looks set to be approved by the Council’s Committee of the Permanent Representatives (COREPER) and subsequently submitted for final adoption by the Council and the European Parliament, all before the year end.

For some, the EU is headed in the wrong direction. WWF refers to this latest move as ‘a strikingly regressive position’[xi] and a group of scientists have come forward with an open letter protesting the current use of the EMFAF. Instead, they favour greater monitoring and science-based targets to recover overexploited fisheries:

Completely effective fisheries management still eludes the EU in all of its waters and if its fisheries are to become sustainable, harmful subsidies must be eliminated. A future European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF) could spearhead this reform by redirecting harmful subsidies towards benefitting the ocean environment. Indeed, citizens are asking EU governments to ring-fence 25% of the EMFAF for nature protection. This could help to support local communities to co-manage Marine Protected Areas or be invested in technologies that help industries become low impact and, for example, decrease bycatch of dolphins, sea turtles, seabirds and sharks”.[xii]

Turning the Tide

In contrast to that disappointing development at the EU and WTO, other countries are moving in a more sustainable direction. In December 2020, the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (High-Level Ocean Panel)[xiii] put forward an ocean action agenda. The 14 world leaders of the High-Level Ocean Panel, which includes one EU member ˗ Portugal, committed to sustainably manage 100% of the ocean area under national jurisdiction by 2025, guided by Sustainable Ocean Plans, such as ending harmful subsidies.[xiv]

The High-Level Ocean Panel also supports a global target to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, where each country’s contribution will depend on national circumstances. There are 74 priority actions detailed in the ‘Transformations[xv] that achieved consensus from the 14 countries. The recommendations focus on five critical areas: ocean wealth, ocean health, ocean equity, ocean knowledge and ocean finance.

Besides these commitments made by nations, recent news from a corporate coalition shows that the private sector can lead on sustainability progress. In December 2020, Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS)[xvi] announced four measurable goals for promoting a more sustainable ocean.[xvii] SeaBOS includes ten of the largest seafood companies globally, which control up to 40% of some of the largest and most valuable fish stocks and up to 16% of the global marine catch, so the actions of these companies have a meaningful effect on the state of the oceans.[xviii]

Table 1: SeaBOS Keystone Actors. *Estimated **2019 data.[xix] Market Capitalisation as of 18/12/2020.

Table 1 Img

SeaBOS Goals by the end of 2021[xx]

  • Eliminate IUU fishing and forced, bonded and child labour in their operations – and implement measures to address those issues in their supply chains – with public reporting on progress in 2022 and 2025.
  • Extend the collaboration with the Global Ghost Gear Initiative to solve the problem of lost and abandoned fishing gear and combine to clean up plastics pollution from coasts and waterways.
  • Agree on a strategy for reducing impacts on endangered species and the use of antibiotics.
  • Set CO2 emissions reduction goals and reporting approaches from each company.

All these goals have relatively close actionable dates, unlike the often cited 10- to 20-year commitments released by many companies.  These large corporate players recognise that governments should also play a role and mention ‘the need for government regulations to support sustainable fisheries and aquaculture management, to effectively mitigate climate change risks and impacts, and provide for ‘climate smart’ seafood production’.

Together, these last two initiatives point to where the world should be in the next decade, when the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development conclude. The real challenge is this – can funding structures achieve the delicate balance between promoting a sustainable ocean while at the same time safeguarding fishing communities from economic hardship?





















[xix] FactSet (2020).

[xx] Source: SeaBOS press release 8 December 2020

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Planet Tracker is a non-profit financial think tank aligning capital markets with planetary boundaries. It was created in 2018 to investigate the risk of market failure related to environmental limits, focusing on oceans, food & land use and materials such as textiles and plastics.

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