New Zealand has been at the forefront of a global move to eliminate subsidies which encourage over-fishing.
The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) includes a prohibition on subsidies which are harmful to fish stocks.
Each year governments pour an estimated $48 billion worth of subsidies into fishing industries.
The pressure on fish stocks as a result of subsidies has been a concern for countries like New Zealand, which attempts to fish sustainably and without subsidies.
University of Auckland’s Dr Glenn Simmons said the subsidies aimed at increasing catch pose a problem.
“We’ve got a situation where some governments, I guess they look at it as in their strategic interests to prop up their industries by giving them subsidies, primarily on fuel and vessels.
“It increases fishing pressure and for legitimate operators that are trying to fish sustainably it doesn’t provide a level playing field.”
It’s estimated 89 percent of fish are now either fully-fished or over-fished and increased efforts to catch fish are not increasing the haul.
The World Bank's 2018 changing wealth of nations report says despite improvements in fishing technology the global fishing industry is catching the same amount of fish each year as it did 20 years ago.
This decrease of fish abundance hasn’t led to a decrease in boats or fishers. The opposite has occurred; the global fleet has doubled over the last 40 years, and the number of fishers tripled.
The estimated $48b yearly in government subsidies is holding up an increasingly uneconomic industry.
Subsidies can take the form of fuel discounts, help with purchasing bigger boats or better equipment. Academics say this assistance, which account for 60 percent of subsidies, is harmful and encourages over-fishing. The remaining subsidies, which may take the form of research grants, fisheries management activities, or unemployment insurance are classed as either beneficial or ambiguous.
The World Bank report estimates when the subsidies were added onto existing fishing costs such as fuel and labour, global fisheries made a loss of almost $61b in 2014. The report says 75 of 139 countries evaluated make a loss from fishing.
It is not known how long those making a profit will continue to do so as fish stocks are depleted and climate change affects fish distribution.
Fishing entities providing subsidies include Japan, China, United States, Spain, South Korea, Canada, Russia, Indonesia and Australia.
According to boat data collected by Global Fishing Watch, Spain, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and China accounted for over 85 percent of global fishing in 2016. Chinese boats spent the longest at sea, clocking up over 16 million hours in 2016. It’s estimated their industry receives $5.5b in subsidies.
New Zealand does not provide harmful subsidies to the fishing industry and has been involved in attempting to ban subsidies for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing through the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for many years.
The attempts at the WTO have so far failed, but a prohibition exists in the CPTPP which 11 countries, including Japan - the world’s heaviest subsidiser of fishing - are scheduled to sign.
The trade deal's provisions include ending subsidies that negatively affect over-fished marine stocks within three years of the agreement coming into force, and not introducing new subsidies in the future.
A United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal, signed by 193 nations which also calls for the end to harmful subsidies, comes into force in 2020. The UN goal is not legally binding and efforts to revive a WTO decision on the matter will continue.
A WTO decision would impact countries such as China, the US, Spain and Russia, who significantly subsidise their fishing industry but are not signatories of the CPTPP.
For New Zealand a ban, if enforced, could have flow-on effects. The country's seafood exports earned $1.79b in 2016; if fewer fish are caught worldwide the price of fish could spike.
Sanford, New Zealand’s largest fishing and aquaculture business, is opposed to industry subsidies, with CEO Volker Kuntzsch saying they provide an unfair advantage.
“Banning subsidies globally would help improve the value of marine resources and avoid the introduction of additional capacity in an environment that should focus on the sustainability of resources.”
The CPTPP, which includes a prohibition on granting or maintaining harmful subsidies, is scheduled to be signed in Chile on March 8.