Rescuing the Inexhaustible... (The Issue of Fisheries Subsidies in the International Trade policy)

Author:Ekaterina Anyanova
Position:Lecturer in the law of the sea, I. Kant State University of Russia Ph.D candidate, Hamburg University, Germany.

The main causes of over-fishing are not biological or environmental, but rather economic overexploitation of the ocean's fishing resources. Since the problem is an economic issue, the response has to also be in the economic realm. Proper fisheries management and restrictions on fleets' capacity (including the issue of fishery subsidies) would be very effective. A retreat from the subsidies in... (see full summary)


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Ocean fish numbers around 28,000 different types of species. This is more than the number of amphibians, reptiles, birds or mammals on the entire planet. It seems just innumerable... Nevertheless, humanity has succeeded in over fishing.

Many ocean fishes are ancient species that existed on the earth for more than 450 million years before the dinosaurs began roaming. For this reason alone, they deserve careful treatment and special protection. But besides this, fishes are such an essential source of protein and other nutrients in the human diet, as well as in the diets of multiple other animal and bird species, that their depletion seems almost unthinkable.

The international community has started to combat over fishing by different means and techniques: fishing of some species is totally prohibited, while for other species seasonal quotas, protection during the spawning season and minimum mesh sizes have been established (Tomasevich, 1971 p. 46).

Biological solutions like these have not worked out, however. This is not surprising, since the main causes of over fishing are not biological or environmental, but rather economic overexploitation of the ocean's fishing resources. Since the problem is an economic one, the appropriate response to it also has to be an economic one. Proper fisheries management and restrictions on fleets' capacity (including the issue of fishery subsidies) also would be very effective.

However, today's model of economic globalization presumes an open multilateral trading system functioning like clockwork. Is the restriction or abolition of fishery subsidies workable under today's economic circumstances? How should these issues be treated so as to not distort the global market, or ruin the already troubled fishing industry? What kind of legal frameworks should it have? This paper attempts to find some solutions to the foregoing problems.

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1. Environmental and economical background
1. 1 Overfishing

Fishing is one of the oldest human professions. Since the Middle Ages, it has been an organized industry (e.g., the catch of herring in northern Europe). The 15th century was marked by the beginning of organized catches of cod on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. In the 17th century whaling fleets put to sea. Excluding some particular concerns (e.g., in the 14th century in England, special trawls with a fine mesh (wondyrchoums) killed enormous numbers of fish), humanity was almost sure until the 19th century that the ocean's fish stocks were inexhaustible (Policansky, 1995 p. 652). Even in the 19th century, British biologist Thomas Huxley proclaimed the endless resources of fish in the ocean (Pearse, 1996 p. 12).

Since fishes were considered inexhaustible, access to them was entirely open and unregulated. Over time, this open access to the sea's resources became increasingly harmful. The lack of adequate management of the fisheries also contributed to the problem. The resulting overcapitalization and over fishing first led to such "global" decisions as revocation of such Grotius premises as "inexhaustibility of resources and insusceptibility to appropriation" (Knight, 1977 p. 27).

In the 20th century, not only easily accessible stocks of fish but also more elusive mammalian species (seals, otters, blue and right whales) declined. By the end of World War II, overfishing had become a critical problem.

Presently, around 60% of the major species are under threat: a fully utilized half of all species and an over fished quarter. The problem is even beyond one of "sustainability": it is already acute for the current generation, let alone for future generations. Biologists warn: in some cases the fishing stocks can never be renewed, since their over fishing could just remove the stock forever from the ecosystem.

Biologist Garrett Hardin called this over fishing problem the "tragedy of the commons". A resource that belongs to everyone and no one, the ocean's fish stocks have become a problem which everybody concerned, directly or indirectly, has to solve. This includes not only biologists and environmentalists, but the fishing industry as well. Ordinary consumers play a role too by buying threatened species at the grocery store.

Both biological and economic solutions are being applied to the over fishing problem. The question arises whether fisheries management should also be corrected from the economic point of view (Meany, 1986 p. 45). Should the free market system be restricted for environmental reasons? The legal answers have already partly been found. The principle of the freedom of fishing on the high seas, declared in the customary law of the sea, had to be revised, or rather corrected, in light of overfishing. Arts. 61, 62 and 65 UNCLOS provide rather general rights and obligations of coastal states concerning their living resources in the EEZ. The main response is given in multilateral and bilateral treaties. The freedom of fishing was (and continues to be) restricted and subjected to specific conditions.

1. 2 Fleets overcapacity

However, the main danger lies not in the open access to fish resources, but in the technological progress. Even whales were endangered only after the invention of the harpoon gun. The freedom of fishing on the high seas (at least until the 20th century) and high prices for tuna, billfish, salmon and squid promoted high competition between states and, as a consequence, development of modernized vessels and more effective fishing methods. Governments, under these conditions of high competition, increased their fleets' capacity as much as possible, providing partial subsidies to their fishing industries.

This led to what we have now: fishing fleets that are "overbuilt" (Warren, 1994 p. 2). In other words, the amount of input money or capital oversteps the oceans' productive capacity. First, too many fishing fleets are catching too few fish (overcapitalization). Second, the new, more effective ways of fishing, like large- scale drift nets or advanced gear types and new technologies such as GPS, have drastically increased the fleets' capacity.

Natural checks on overfishing, such as the "self-renewal" of fish stocks, no longer help since fish no longer have time to reproduce their numbers (Peel, 1995 p. 1). Fisheries resources are finite-that's why proper management and certain restrictions upon catches are unavoidable if fish stocks are to be preserved at any level (Johnston, 1987 p. 3).

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As far back as 1989, the available capacity of fishing fleets was already one-third more than what is needed to catch all the available fish. Currently, the fleets' harvesting capacity exceeds the amount of available fishing resources by far more than that. Today's capacity of the Canadian cod fleet alone is more than what is necessary to catch all the Atlantic cod stocks. According to the FAO's data, 4 million vessels constituted the world fishing fleet in 2004.

The current situation can be summarized as: the catching capacity continues to grow, the fishing resources continue to decrease. The threatening trends are having no significant effect on the fishing industry's practices: world fish harvests continue to rise at the expense of the more than three times overexploited fishing resources (even cod and herring).

Now humanity faces another challenge: how to reduce fleets (Iudicello, 1999 p. 70). One of the primary solutions would be to reduce the fleets' capacity. However, its growth has been in many respects shaped by government subsidies. While the connection between overfishing and overcapacity is unquestionable, the role of government subsidies in overfishing is more questionable. Besides, 86% of the world's decked vessels operate in Asia, 1.3% in Africa and 0.6% in South America - all in developing countries. Restrictions on fisheries subsidies could be catastrophic for the economies of these regions.

In 1990, independent experts directly indicated the need to reduce fishing capacity by at least 40%. Even the EU's Multiannual Guidance Programme (MAGP) for 1987 - 1991 stressed the need (not in a mandatory manner), however on a smaller scale (a recommended decrease of 3% in gross tonnage). Yet, except for two "obedient" member states, all the rest actually...

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