Spain Fishing Fleet Fueled By Major Subsidies, Report Finds
By Kate Willson, Mar Cabra and Marcos García Rey Of The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
Decades of overfishing have left Europe’s fish stocks in peril and its fishermen in poverty. It’s an impasse paid for by EU taxpayers. Yet a proposed revision of the EU’s fishing law, hailed as sweeping reform, is rapidly losing momentum.
A look at the industry’s biggest player — Spain — shows what officials are up against. Billions of euros in subsidies built its bloated fleet and propped up a money-losing industry. All the while companies systematically flout the rules while officials overlook fraud and continue to fund offenders, an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has found.
“Spain has earned its bad reputation,” said Ernesto Penas Lado, director of policy and enforcement at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. “The problem is others don’t have the reputation and deserve it just as much.”
Spain may not be alone. But as the EU’s most powerful fishing fleet, it is the starkest example of a failed EU policy, critics say.
The Spanish fishing industry has received more than €5.8 billion (more than $8 billion) in subsidies since 2000 for everything from building new vessels and breaking down old ships to payments for retiring fishermen and training for the next generation, an unprecedented analysis by ICIJ shows. Subsidies account for almost a third of the value of the industry. Simply put, nearly one in three fish caught on a Spanish hook or raised in a Spanish farm is paid for with public money.
ICIJ’s analysis is the first in-depth look at just how much public aid Spain has received for fishing — primarily from EU taxpayers, but also from Madrid and regional governments. The country has cornered a third of all the EU’s fishing aid since 2000, far more than any other member state. The central government doles out even more for things such as low interest loans and funding for its largest industry associations, which in turn lobby the EU for more industry subsidies, records show. Since 2000, the sector has avoided paying €2 billion in taxes on fuel to the Spanish Treasury.
Public monies also fund a surprising range of services. More than €82 million ($114 million) has been spent to promote the fishing sector through advertising and at trade shows. After fishing vessels were hijacked by pirates in the Indian Ocean, Spain in 2009 changed its law to allow vessels to hire private security forces onboard, and then it helped foot the bill to the tune of €2.8 million.
The root of the problem, regulators say, is that out-of-control subsidies encourage countries to build up already oversized fleets that are rapidly depleting the seas.
“Fish are not an unlimited resource,” said fisheries economist Andrew Dyck of the University of British Columbia. “When the public purse is the only thing propping this industry up, we are paying for resource degradation.”
The European Commission itself recently concluded that “too many boats continue to chase too few fish.” It blamed the situation, in large part, on subsidies.
Fish, not human rights
One of the most controversial forms of public aid pays for foreign fishing licenses. With its own waters increasingly empty of fish, the EU buys rights to the fishing grounds of developing countries such as Morocco, Mozambique and the Ivory Coast.
Green groups, fishing experts and some EU politicians have criticized the agreements, saying European fishermen take advantage of poor countries that often lack knowledge and resources to protect their fish stocks. And key agreements cost more than they return on the value of fish; that is the case with Morocco, where each euro invested returns only €0.65 in value added, according to a study funded by the EU.
The Spanish industry has received more than €800 million ($1.15 billion) in foreign licenses over the past decade — about two-thirds of the EU licenses overall, according to the ICIJ analysis.
The agreements have the support of Carmen Fraga Estévez, the EU Parliament’s most powerful legislator on fisheries issues. A sharp-tongued politician with an encyclopedic knowledge of the industry, Fraga served as fishing secretary in Spain and has held a seat in the Parliament’s committee on fisheries — which she now chairs — for 17 years. Her loyalty to the industry appears to be so deep that when she had to choose between human rights and fish, she voted for the latter.
“The Fisheries Committee has to discuss fisheries issues, not human rights,” she was quoted in the press as saying when in 2009 the committee for the first time voted down a fishing agreement. Days before the vote, 157 civilians died after Guinea’s totalitarian regime opened fire on pro-democracy protesters. The agreement would have handed the Guinean government €450,000 ($639,000) a year for fishing licenses.
Fraga Estévez declined requests for interviews from ICIJ.
Spanish member of the European Parliament (MEP) Josefa Andrés Barea said the subsidized foreign fishing licenses are vital. When Spain entered the EU in 1986, very few Spanish vessels were allowed in the Union’s waters. So fishing in foreign waters was — and still is — the only way for many ship owners to make a living. And if Spain isn’t fishing, she said, less savory global players will scoop up the catch instead.
"There's a fundamental problem here which is that major [fishing] powers like China will be there if we're not. And they don't have any rules,” Andrés said. “They're much more predatory than we are."
Fewer fish, poorer fishermen
EU waters are among the world’s most exploited. Scientists say three quarters of assessed fish stocks are overfished. Eels once served as a delicacy are so depleted scientists doubt they can recover despite a Europe-wide rescue plan. Irish Sea Cod, Baltic Sprat and West of Scotland herring are all on the downfall.
The trend stretches across the globe. In 2006, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that 75 percent of the world fish stocks were fished to the very limit of — or beyond — sustainable levels. In its latest report, from last year, that figure had risen to 85 percent.
“Europe has a long and dark history of overfishing,” said Boris Worm, one of the world´s most renowned marine biologists, working at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. In a 2003 study, Worm showed that industrialized fishing has, since 1950, emptied the oceans of nine out of 10 fish longer than 20 inches such as salmon, cod and halibut.
Fewer fish mean fewer — and poorer — fishermen. Across the EU, the sector often costs taxpayers more than it produces. According to a recent report by the environmental group Oceana, at least eight countries received more money in public aid in 2009 than the value of their landed fish.
The fishing industry was the only segment of Spain’s economy that shrunk in the 2000s. The northwestern region of Galicia more than anywhere else in Europe relies on the industry — and the subsidies — to stay afloat. Yet the area lost a third of its fisheries-related jobs in the decade leading up to 2006.
In the Galician port of Vigo on the Atlantic coast, more fish pass across the docks headed for consumers’ plates than in any other port in the world. Coastal towns are riddled with signs boasting subsidized fishing projects. Politicians include the sector as a central theme in their campaigns.
The industry’s power was propelled by the 1960s push for industrialization by the fascist Franco regime. Franco himself was an avid fisherman and a Galician by birth.
“Economically the [fishing] industry is between the tomato and the potato. But politically it is more important than any other industry,” said EU’s head of fisheries control Valérie Lainé. The sector “has always been protected by the government — without the industry, Vigo would be dead, Galicia would be dead.”
The powerful Galician industry group ARVI, which boasts of its close ties to lawmakers, acknowledged that fishing wouldn’t be viable without public funding. In a recent position paper, it encouraged politicians to support subsidies to modernize outdated vessels, fish in foreign waters and build new on-shore cold storage.
Meanwhile subsidies steadily flow to the region, but sometimes only make things worse.
Víctor Muñiz has relied on fishing for decades. He used to own vessels, as did his father before him. Not anymore. Now they operate a fish processing plant in the Galician town of Meaño. The factory was renovated in 2009 with EU subsidies to process and freeze up to 300 tons of fish per hour; it was expected to employ 100 people. But the brand new machinery stands silent.
“There should be 10 trucks with mackerel here,” Muñiz said in a bitter tone as he walked through the 8,000 square meter plant in April. But within 20 days of the start of the season, most vessels had already scooped up their entire mackerel quota.
Muñiz said the quota is too low, but his major frustration is that too many factories like his were subsidized in the first place.
“You present a €2 million project, and they give you 60 percent. You’ve told them how much fish you're going to produce and what kind. Somebody should have told the processing plants: ‘No, sorry, this is the quota for mackerel.’”