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Tom Dillon: How fishing subsidies hurt the ocean—and us, too

World Health Day is a good time to remember how critical the ocean is to human health — and that global leaders have not done nearly enough to ensure the long-term sustainability of the marine environment.

Ask people what's most important to them and there's a good chance they'll say, "Staying healthy—and keeping my family healthy."


But they might not realize that the health, economic well-being, and safety of their families and communities very much depend on the health of our oceans, which cover 70 percent of the earth and face threats ranging from warming waters and diminishing fish stocks to plastics pollution and dying reefs.

Protecting this ecosystem is critical to human health: The ocean filters our air, controls the weather, and provides food for billions of people. Yet, collectively, global leaders have not done nearly enough to ensure the long-term sustainability of the marine environment.

World Health Day, on April 7, is an opportune time to make the health of the oceans a top priority for governments around the world. One achievable first step would be ending the subsidies that enable overfishing and illegal fishing. Today, one-third of all fished stocks are exploited at unsustainable levels and another 60 percent are fished to capacity, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

A significant part of this overfishing is driven by subsidies—most of which go to the owners of large-scale fishing fleets to help pay for fuel, gear, and boat construction.

Fishing vessels that rely on subsidies to travel farther and longer than might otherwise be profitable are a relentless strain on the ocean. They also hurt the thousands of artisanal (traditional small-scale fishing often for commercial purposes) and subsistence (those who fish just to feed their families) communities around the world that depend on healthy fish populations.

Picture the owners of a 50-foot dugout canoe in a West African village. They likely return from their daily forays with fewer and fewer fish if 300-foot, foreign-flagged industrial trawlers are just a few miles offshore, dragging fish nets as wide as a football field.

And as fisheries decline, millions of people face more than economic hardship; they risk an imminent threat of food insecurity. Increasingly, the artisanal crews are not only failing to catch enough fish to turn a profit, they're also not even catching enough to feed themselves and their families.

In many coastal communities, fish are the primary source of protein, and scientists tell us that more than 10 percent of the world's population, particularly those in developing countries, could face deficiencies in micronutrients such as iron, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins driven by fish declines over the coming decades.

This could lead to increases in serious issues ranging from child mortality to cognitive impairment. Governments spend $35 billion annually to support their fishing fleets, $20 billion of which goes to expand or prop up their operations in defiance of basic economics.

One landmark study found that without subsidies 54 percent of fishing on the high seas would be unprofitable, which would force these companies—based strictly on the value of their catch—to cut the size of their fleets and fish less to stay profitable. That reduction, coupled with a concerted push for widespread, effective fisheries management, would in turn help overfished stocks recover and keep fisheries sustainable for all fishers—artisanal, subsistence, and industrial—far into the future.

The gap between industrial fishers and subsistence or artisanal is mirrored in the gap between poor and wealthy countries. Fishers in developing countries get $1 in subsidies for every $7 that go to those in developed countries. This represents a barrier to development in precisely the regions where it is most needed.

Fortunately, a solution is within reach: In 2017, members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) committed to negotiate and adopt an agreement on fisheries subsidies by the end of 2019.

Both the WTO commitment and a U.N. Sustainable Development Goal—SDG 14.6—call for reducing subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, while eliminating those that contribute to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

Of course, these goals—which constitute one response to the widespread reports of the perils facing our ocean—are no guarantee of action. Reducing the harmful effects of subsidized fishing has been on the WTO agenda for almost two decades, during which the problem has only grown.

But with time running short to restore our ocean's vitality, these negotiators could take a huge step toward ensuring sustainable fishing, a vibrant marine ecosystem, and a healthy planet.

World Health Day would be a good time to start.

Tom Dillon leads The Pew Charitable Trusts' environment work.

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