Where Have All the Fish Gone?

Fishing subsidies Kiribati

In Kiribati, an island nation in the Central Pacific, fishing is not just a way of life—it’s a matter of survival. But how do local fishermen compete with large-scale, heavily subsidized foreign fishing fleets? How do they cope when also faced with changing environmental conditions that have decreased fishing stocks and removed alternative sources of income and food access? Faced with these new challenges, fishermen in Kiribati are concerned about their ability to feed and sustain their communities. As one local fisherman told a climate activist, “Now, we cannot really survive.

Kiribati does not face these problems alone. Ninety percent of global fishing stocks are either over-fished or fully fished. Continued fishing at these intensities could risk irreversible resource depletion and harm to ecosystems throughout the Central Pacific and beyond. Subsidized fishing fleets from more developed countries are largely responsible for this decline. The design of fishing subsidies encourages overfishing: subsidies go overwhelmingly to large-scale fishing operations and only increase their competitive advantages.

A narrow island sits between a blue bay and a dark blue ocean.

The island of Tarawa in Kiribati. Photo by Government of Kiribati, October, 2005.

Subsidies offset a range of costs and enable foreign fleets to compete with small-scale local fishers from a position of economic and technological strength. A large percentage of subsidies go to capacity-enhancing activities, such as vessel construction and upgrades, as well as fuel subsidies, which alone make up 15-30% of subsidies worldwide. Without this structural support, which runs in the tens of billions of dollars each year, long-range fishing operations would not be profitable. Subsidies ensure that this business continues.

Declining fishing stocks are, in many ways, connected to inequalities associated with global systems of finance, trade, production, and the use and allocation of natural resources. Subsidies are one mechanism through which these structural factors exert influence: they institutionalize and extend colonial practices of resource extraction. Much like colonial-era extraction, when the economic growth of western countries was built on access to raw materials, fishing subsidies concentrate benefits in subsidizing countries and have destructive social, economic, and environmental effects on local environments and fish-reliant populations. Scrutinizing structural factors helps to identify sources of inequality and understand how imbalanced development can cause social vulnerability and migration. This approach is particularly useful for analyzing how climate change exacerbates the structural problems associated with overfishing.

Fishing subsidies institutionalize and extend colonial practices of resource extraction.

Subsidies and overfishing not only affect a population’s economic sustainability related to income and employment, but also their food sovereignty and food security. Pacific Island countries already rely on imported goods and face climate change-related environmental concerns like erosion and salt water intrusion that restrict farming and livestock capacities. Fishing is vital, and fewer fish only increases Pacific Island communities’ precarity in the context of climate change. When subsidized fishing fleets overfish these waters, they eliminate a critical source of income and food that has long supported the people of Kiribati and is central to local cultures and traditions.

Poor food access diminishes local self-sufficiency and agency. It also increases the risk of becoming dependent on imported foods and food aid, a common product of colonialism. Local fishermen note how much harder it is to find fish compared with a few years ago and discuss the consequences, such as increased reliance on less healthy, more expensive, and heavily processed imported foods.

Over 250,000 tons of tuna are caught each year in Kiribati, making the country the second largest source of tuna in the world. However, hardly any of this tuna is caught by local fishermen. Instead, this catch is brought in largely by foreign fishing fleets, which pay Kiribati only a small percentage of the catch’s total value. Over a billion dollars’ worth of tuna is caught in Kiribati waters annually, but less than 10% of this goes to the local economy. Nevertheless, this small amount of revenue from fishing fees is a major part of Kiribati’s national budget, and reliance on this revenue to support essential government services makes it difficult to negotiate fishing limits and compensation levels.

Spanish Fishing Vessel Albatun Tres in the open ocean

Spanish Fishing Vessel Albatun Tres. Photo by Esperanza A Greenpeace, May, 2008.

Take the case of two large Spanish fishing vessels, the Albatun Tres and Albacora Uno, which have been operating in Kiribati recently. The Albatun Tres was constructed with an $8 million subsidy, and these two ships alone can catch more in three trips than Kiribati’s entire local fleet in a year. These vessels’ operations benefit Spanish businesses and labor markets, as well as international consumers, who pay less for fish. Meanwhile, the people of Kiribati, heavily reliant on fishing stocks, suffer financial losses and threats to food sovereignty and food security. They also pay more for fish, since local fishers are bringing in smaller catches.

Pacific Island countries do not have the financial capacity to similarly bankroll local fishers. Consequently, subsidies allow foreign fishing fleets to dominate global fisheries. China, the country with the largest subsidized fishing fleet, had 2,460 vessels in 2014. This disparity in who can fish enables largely unimpeded resource extraction and concentrates benefits in subsidizing countries.

Trade negotiations have attempted to limit fishing subsidies and overfishing. However, international attention focuses on environmental implications and less on what overfishing means for local populations. Focusing on the natural resource over the local human population, which is often Indigenous, is a typical colonial approach to conservation. Decision makers often ignore Indigenous people, even though they are among the most affected by subsidies, free trade agreements, and other structural mechanisms that create economic pressures. Indeed, they are rarely even allowed into the room with decision makers. Negotiations over the structures that determine fishing privileges are thus also driven by structural inequalities, as only powerful political and economic players are present in trade and development discussions.

Millions continue to be denied the right to preserve the natural wealth of their lands and waters.

Subsidies are not the only driver of declining Central Pacific fishing stocks. Also responsible are coral reef die offs, increased climate variability, and rising ocean temperatures associated with more frequent El Nino events, which may push fish from the tropics towards more temperate seas. However, increased climate variability and warming waters also have structural roots: The last century of global economic expansion that has driven climate change has concentrated benefits in developed countries while poor populations have experienced far more of the burdens. For instance, development policies and programs, most notably those of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the 1980s and 1990s, accelerated climate change and had deleterious social, economic, and environmental consequences in less developed countries.

Poor countries face the greatest risks associated with development and pollution and have been disproportionately impacted by climate change. For example, poor populations experience the greatest loss of life from climate change, and sub-Saharan Africa faces the most climate change-related deaths globally. In the context of fishing stocks, decreased stocks similarly hurt poor and subsistence communities most. The social impacts of climate change are comparable to the consequences of fishing subsidies and include increased economic and health vulnerability, lower incomes, higher unemployment, and risks to food security.

Climate justice advocates have argued that people are entitled to security from excess pollution and its effects. European courts and the African Commission on Humans and Peoples’ Rights recognize heavy pollution practices as human rights violations. Nevertheless, millions continue to be denied the right to preserve the natural wealth and long-term viability of their lands and waters. Just as those most affected by subsidies are not at the table in relevant negotiations, those most affected by climate change are also absent from global decision-making around energy and consumption, which is dominated by corporate giants and wealthy states. This exclusion points to continued disparities of power and environmental impact when it comes to climate change.

Kiribati on the globe

Location of Kiribati on the globe. Image from Wikipedia, May, 2011.

In small island nations in the Central Pacific, declining fishing stocks related to both fishing subsidies and climate change exacerbate social vulnerability. Small countries like Kiribati have vastly different levels of agency compared to the more developed countries that subsidize fishing, both in capacities to respond to economic and climate change threats and in access to a seat at the table in relevant global decision-making.

Showing that places like Kiribati are subject to strong external influences may increase the transparency of inequalities in climate change processes, shift understandings of the forces behind related impacts like social vulnerability and migration, and encourage greater global responsibility. If the international community tolerates foreign fishing fleets entering Kiribati waters to remove fish, then does not the international community also bear responsibility for related effects, like increased food insecurity, social vulnerability, and migration?

Examining the structural influences behind environmental impacts of declining fishing stocks may challenge conventional narratives that overlook how issues like unequal development, growth, and trade affect populations differently. More structural analyses of the forces driving impacts like social vulnerability and migration might also increase calls to reconsider fishing subsidies and their global impacts.

Featured Image: Fishing in Kiribati. Photo by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, April, 2008.

Hugh Roland uses demographic and qualitative methods to study climate change related social vulnerability and migration. He is a Ph.D. student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Contact.

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