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Overfishing does damage to more than just fish

Government subsidies are compounding the problem.

Overfishing threatens disaster not only for fish, oceans and the food supply, but for fishing itself. The industry’s prosperity declines right along with populations of tuna, shark, swordfish and other species. Yet all over the world it persists in taking more fish than nature can replace.

If this practice seems foolish, still more so are government efforts to encourage it. The largest fishing nations spend tens of billions of dollars annually to help fishing companies pay for fuel and new vessels. The US government has been a leader of international efforts to end subsidies, but is now proposing a new one of its own: low-interest loans for fishing-boat construction. The National Marine Fisheries Service should abandon this disturbing reversal of policy.

Subsidies make it possible for enormous boats to travel long distances to fish the deep waters that lie far from any coastline. More than half of this high-seas fishing would be unprofitable without subsidies. Curtailing it would boost populations of migratory fish, helping to restock coastal fisheries.

China provides the biggest subsidies for overfishing. Japan, Spain and South Korea spend heavily also. But in the US, beginning in the 1990s, both political parties came to recognise the problem and pull back. For many years, Congress barred appropriations for new boat loans, and in the late ’90s and early 2000s even spent millions on buying back vessels, gear and fishing permits. These days, most of the government’s investment in fishing goes to research, monitoring and conserving fish stocks, and other beneficial activities.

The US has pushed to end other countries’ subsidies. Prohibitions against them are included in both the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which the US subsequently discarded) and the yet-to-be ratified United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. The US is also part of an ongoing effort at the World Trade Organisation to cut subsidies for capacity. Agreement in that forum would be ideal, because it would encourage the broadest possible compliance. All this makes it especially counterproductive for the US to change its approach.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has suggested a compromise: Allow subsidised loans, but only for vessels meant to operate in waters that aren’t overfished. This is no good. As Duke University economist Martin D. Smith has demonstrated, the subsidies have a cascading effect: When new boats are built, they replace older ones that then sail on to more exploited waters.

A better idea would be to support fishing in ways that don’t increase capacity and worsen overfishing — by investing in conservation and other efforts to replenish stocks, or by supporting activities such as fishing for ocean plastics.

Scientists are increasingly convinced of the nutritional value of fish — one more reason to avoid exhausting the earth’s abundance. The US should resume its position as a leader on this issue. The proposal for new subsidies hasn’t been finally approved. Either the agency should rescind it, or Congress should step in.

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P

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