Sumaila, U. R., and D. Pauly. (2006). Catching more bait: a bottom-up re-estimation of global fisheries subsidies. Fisheries Centre Research Reports Vol. 14, No. 6 Pages: 114pp.

This report on fisheries subsidies explores a theme that may seem baffling to the uninitiated: all but the fisheries industry seem to think subsidies are a bad thing, but nevertheless, “cosi fan tutte” (roughly: “they all do it”) in Amadeus Mozart’s immortal words (he also provided the music, which helped). Most opera houses, by the way, survive only because they are subsidized.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the more boat-building subsidies you gave, the more fish you got, and so it is not surprising that the young aides to managers kept on believing in this magic when, in the subsequent decades, they became managers themselves.

Things have changed, however: the resource base is too diminished for all these fishing boats to turn a profit, and the subsidies, far from having the effect they had earlier, now contribute to overfishing, i.e., more fish being caught than should be, as explained in the second chapter of this report. This is not intuitive, and most managers and policy makers either cannot wrap their heads around it, or do not act on it.

Another reason for inaction is that, in most countries, fisheries subsidies are, in budget terms, part of agricultural subsidies… and these are a nightmare that few persons awake would want to get into.

As a result, subsidies not only stay – particularly in Europe and the East Asia – but grow inexorably, and are now conservatively estimated between US$30-34 billion per year for the period from 1995 to 2005. This is nearly double the figure US$14-20 billion accepted until now, which was issued by the World Bank.

This discrepancy is due to this report explicitly accounting for countries which do not quantify the subsidies they give to (or receive for) their fisheries. Thus, in official statistics (e.g., those of the World Bank), they are treated as having zero subsidies. The ‘missing data = 0 problem’ also occurs in the official fishing catch statistics of many maritime countries, and is now known to have misinformed policy-making in numerous instances.

Here, this problem is overcome through an explicit procedure for filling the gaps, which was applied, however, only to countries known to have the subsidy type in question (i.e., that the subsidy was given was known, but not the amount).

Another thing that this report does is differentiate between subsidy types – fuel and non-fuel, subsidies that are considered ‘good’ (e.g., management and surveillance), ‘bad’ (e.g., boat building), and ‘ugly’, i.e., subsidies whose evaluation depends on context. Moreover, subsidies amount and their sources are presented in tables or appendices for all countries, thus allowing skeptical readers to check for themselves. This may contribute toward transparency, and perhaps even assist those who think that ‘cosi fan tutte’ is not an excuse.

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