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No more public subsidies to fund overfishing and biodiversity destruction

Over the past week, fuel has doubled in price. Transportation, agriculture, and fisheries appear to be among the most impacted sectors from this cost increase. In several EU countries, including Italy, Spain, France and Greece, fishers across the whole fishing sector are calling for the government to mitigate the fuel price increase so that their business can remain viable. To date, European fishing fleets have benefited from public sector’ subsidies (tax reduction) that cut fuel prices by 20-50%. The current situation raises the question of the business viability and profitability of some European fleets (e.g., trawlers). If their profitability is voided by a doubling in gas prices [1], which are already heavily subsidized, it raises fundamental questions about their economic and ecological sustainability and whether they should be in business at all. 

A recent analysis (in publication)- coordinated  by WWF - demonstrates that the  trawl sector is heavily dependent on “capacity enhancing” subsidies, (sensu Sumaila et al. (2019a), and not just for fuel. In the previous European Maritime Fisheries Fund (EMFF), the category of trawl vessels larger than 12 metres in length, received more than 70% of the total European Maritime Fisheries Fund (EMFF) budget provided to fishing vessels in the EU Mediterranean.  

This week, a large portion of the fleet remained in port as they raised concerns for the future of their business. Governments and the European Commission are at work to develop aid packages. However, before considering additional aid we advocate that the state of the resources they exploit is carefully considered. The Mediterranean is one of the most overfished seas in the world, with 87% of the stocks being overfished in European Mediterranean waters [2]. When taking a closer look at the target resources of the heavily subsidised trawl fleet, it is apparent  that their efforts are concentrated on several overfished stocks. For example [3]: in the French and Spanish Western Mediterranean hake is currently fished at a rate which is nearly 6 times the sustainable level (F/Fmsy=5,58); blue and red shrimps in the Southern Tyrrhenian Sea are currently fished at a rate that is nearly 4 times the sustainable level (F/Fmsy=3,72); in the Adriatic, sardines are currently fished at a rate that is more than 3 times the sustainable level (F/Fmsy=3,23) while anchovies exploitation rate is nearly twice the sustainable level (F/Fmsy=1,69).

Stepping back from the current outcry, it is important to remember how countries have committed to build back better after the COVID-19 pandemic (during which aid packages were approved for the fishing industry), reduce carbon emissions, and advance on the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14, including the removal of harmful subsidies (SDG 14.6). 

WTO negotiations on harmful subsidies, originally planned in January 2022 have now been postponed until June. In the EU, after months of negotiations, institutions agreed to strengthen the EU’s next Environment Action Programme yet they missed a critical opportunity to set an end date for public finance for fossil fuels and environmentally harmful activities, despite EU leaders having repeatedly stated their intention to phase such finance out. In the EU, over €52 billion of taxpayers’ money goes annually to fossil fuels alone. 

When considering additional aid packages for the fishing industry, which may be certainly beneficial for certain fleets, we recommend that European Institutions and national governments refrain from the use of public funding for harmful subsidies. This includes those that lower the cost of fuel, support destructive fishing  and overcapacity with vessel construction in addition to those that provide price support to keep market prices artificially high. These subsidies contribute to the exploitation of overfished stocks,  and support harmful fishing practices causing  the loss of marine habitats and species. We urge  the European Union to champion the discussion at the WTO on harmful subsidies, with the intent to curb overfishing, biodiversity degradation, CO2 emissions, and to safeguard the  livelihood of small fisheries.

We renew our concerns on the state of Mediterranean overfished stocks . The target set by the Common Fishery Policy to achieve MSY by 2020 has been largely missed and the European Commission should be applying the precautionary approach as stated by Article 2 of the CFP [4]. Fuel subsidies are adding pressure on fish stocks and marine ecosystems by funding vessels which would not be sustained otherwise. Instead the precautionary approach would require a substantial decrease of the fishing effort and fleet capacity [5] through measures aimed at the recovery of the once rich marine biodiversity of the Mediterranean region.

[1]  For example: in Italy subsidized fuel went from € 0,4 to 0.96 in the last year.
[2]  The State of Mediterranean and Black Sea Fisheries, GFCM 2020
Data from the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) stock assessment database and FAO-GFCM SOMFI 2020.
[4]  Article 2(2) of Regulation (EU) No 1380/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2013 on the Common Fisheries Policy.