(If you’re a scientist and would like to sign the letter, please scroll to the bottom of this page.)
The reality of overfishing in European waters is well documented and the EU must make positive changes towards effectively managing its fisheries.1 This requires investment in scientific research to provide appropriate advice and ensuring that political decisions are transparent and align with that advice. However, across the EU—from the Baltic Sea, North Sea, Western Waters, Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea—scientific advice is not always followed, effective monitoring, control and surveillance of fishing activities are inconsistent, and fish stocks continue to be overfished.
This degradation of nature at sea is exacerbated through the provision of public money via government subsidies—a problem scientists have described for a long time, including the well-known 18th century economist, Adam Smith.2 Harmful fisheries subsidies are key drivers of this unsustainable exploitation of our depleted fish populations and the decline in marine species.3 They allow fishing fleets to operate outside of limits that would otherwise not be sustainable, either in terms of the economics of the fishery or biological sustainability, as vessels can continue to fish despite dwindling revenues and resources. Harmful subsidies include all forms of public investments that artificially reduce costs or enhance profits of the sector. In the context of the EU, they include vessel construction, renewal and modernisation as well as fisher assistance, income support programmes, and vessel cessation programmes when these are not implemented correctly they can lead to excessive exploitation.4 Yet, some decision makers still question their impact.
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 Fund (EMFF) 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 EMFF for nature protection.5 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.6
It is estimated that taxpayers spend US$35.4 billion a year on fisheries subsidies around the world, 63% of which directly encourage unsustainable and destructive practices.7 The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for “life below water”, SDG 14, calls explicitly for the elimination of subsidies that contribute to overcapacity, overfishing and illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing by 2020.8
However, the EU continues to provide harmful fisheries subsidies. Removing and redirecting them towards beneficial forms of support has been slow, and the bulk of harmful subsidies remain present even based on the most conservative estimates of the current EMFF.9 As the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU negotiate a new EMFF 2021–2027, it is important that the positive steps taken over the past 20 years are built upon and not quickly undone.
The decision on how to spend the EMFF will impact the EU’s position in negotiating a global agreement to end harmful fisheries subsidies at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). If the EU does not remove harmful subsidies from the EMFF, an agreement at WTO aligning with the SDGs will not be achieved.
We, the undersigned scientists, call on EU governments to not re-introduce harmful subsidies in the EMFF and instead ensure these funds are redirected towards restoring, protecting and conserving nature at sea and ensuring the long-term sustainability of the livelihoods that our oceans support.
(The scientists who have signed this letter have done so in their personal capacities. Institutional affiliations are provided only for identification purposes, and do not imply any institutional position on fisheries subsidies)
1. European Environment Agency, 2019. Marine messages II. No 17/2019. View it here
2. Leazer, John. “A case for subsidies? Adam Smith and the eighteenth century Scottish herring fishery.” The Historian 75.1 (2013): 47-68. View it here
3. IPBES (2019): Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondizio, J. Settele, S. Díaz, and H. T. Ngo (editors). IPBES secretariat, Bonn, Germany. View it here
4. Sumaila, U. Rashid, et al. “A bottom-up re-estimation of global fisheries subsidies.” Journal of Bioeconomics 12.3 (2010): 201-225. View it here
5. For more information, please check BirdLife Europe’s Petition
6. Campos, Bruna et al. (2020): Turning the tide on EU seas with a green recovery. View it here
7. Sumaila, U. Rashid, et al. “Updated estimates and analysis of global fisheries subsidies.” Marine Policy 109 (2019): 103695. View it here
8. United Nations. 2015. Sustainable Development Goal 14 —Conserve and Sustainably Use the Oceans, Seas and Marine Resources for Sustainable Development. United Nations, New York, NY (USA). View it here
9. Skerritt, Daniel J., et al. “A 20-year retrospective on the provision of fisheries subsidies in the European Union.” ICES Journal of Marine Science (2020). View it here
List of signatories supporting this open letter:
Dr Rashid Sumaila, Professor, University of British Columbia
Dr Sebastian Villasante, Professor, University of Santiago de Compostela
Dr Daniel Skerritt, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of British Columbia
Dr Jean Harris, Executive Director, WILDTRUST
Dr Anthony Bicknell, Research Fellow, University of Exeter
Emilia Jankowska, Senior Research Fellow, Project Drawdown
Dr Ilyass Dahmouni, Scientist, ilyass dahmouni
Dr Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood, Lecturer, University of St Andrews
M.Sc. Ignacio Gianelli, Research Assistant, Faculty of Sciences, Uruguay
Dean Page, Postgraduate Researcher, University of Hull
Asta Audzijonyte, Chief Researcher, Nature Research Centre
Paul Day , Principal, Carijoa Marine Environmental Consulting
Dr Richard Lilley, Director , Project Seagrass
Ian Bryceson, Professor, Norwegian University of Life Sciences
Hussain Sinan, PhD student, Dalhousie University
Dr Jonathan Handley, Marine IBA/KBA Officer, BirdLife International
Dr Stephanie Borrelle, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Toronto
Pr Didier Gascuel, Head of the Fisheries and aquatic sciences center, at Agrocampus Ouest, Institut Agro