THE BLOG
03/12/2014 10:43 am ET Updated May 12, 2014

Less is More: We Need a Global Strategy to End Fishing Overcapacity

The global ocean, from the coast to the high seas, is facing multiple threats. We rely on the ocean for food, for transport, for the very air we breathe, but the current systems in place for governing and managing its resources are not fit for purpose. As a result, fish stocks are being depleted, rich biodiversity is at risk and illegal fishing vessels threaten the food security of whole nations. It is our economies that suffer -- depletion of fish stocks alone costs the global economy an estimated $50 billion per year.

The root of the problem is fishing overcapacity: too many boats chasing too few fish. Most problematic are the thousands of powerful, modern boats, equipped with high-tech tools able to find fish almost anywhere. But the more fish these boats take out, the fewer fish there are that can reproduce, and the more fishers must turn to potent tools to find them.

To break this vicious circle, since the 1990s the EU has shifted away from expanding the EU fishing fleet and is instead focusing support in the opposite direction -- adapting it to natural resources. The EU's fleet has been reduced by 25 percent since 2000.

Fishing less can be economically smarter. Reducing pressure on fish populations enables them to recover and thrive, making fishing easier and increasing the industry's profits as well as the welfare of coastal communities. Europe badly needs smart economics like this right now, just as it needs a stable supply of fresh and healthy seafood. Globally, with 83 percent of high seas fishing being carried out by developed countries, the principle of the freedom of the high seas is manifestly inequitable.

Of course, scrapping fishing vessels is not the only, or even the best, way to reduce capacity. The solution must be a well-designed mix of structural and conservation tools, rights-based management systems, tighter controls and, especially, incentives for diversification. After all, boats that go out fishing can also go out collecting litter or be put to good use for tourism.

Nor can overcapacity be reversed without specifically dealing with the vast subsidies that have driven it -- both globally and in the EU. Global fisheries subsidies are estimated at approximately $35 billion a year, over $20 billion of which are capacity-enhancing. Without this distortion, many fishing enterprises would simply not be profitable, and other industries and jobs would emerge in their stead.

The recent reform of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy addresses all these issues and will help eradicate the remaining pockets of overcapacity in the European fleet. Subsidies have been redesigned to promote sustainable fisheries and prohibit any support that risks increasing capacity. The reform will also ensure that when European vessels fish outside EU waters they only fish within scientifically safe margins and only after the needs of nearby coastal state fleets have been met.

The EU is putting a stop to fishing overcapacity. Now this needs to happen at a global level. To achieve the right balance between fishing power and natural resources, all global actors need to pull together. International rules and processes exist but -- all too often -- only on paper and not in practice. These glaring gaps in ocean governance, especially on the high seas, were the motivation behind the creation of the Global Ocean Commission in 2013.

Some battles are being won, with annual quotas and capacity limits for Bluefin tuna in the Atlantic and Mediterranean now set in accordance with scientific advice, or the capacity freeze on tropical tunas in the Pacific. Other struggles persist, such as monitoring better compliance. With a third of all commercial fish stocks over-exploited and a further half fully exploited, it is disheartening to watch while some nations still heavily subsidize their vessel and processing capacity or continue to expand their fleets.

There is no shortage of rules and guidance: we have an FAO International Plan of Action on overcapacity; we have joint recommendations by regional organisations managing tuna on how to reduce and transfer capacity; and the World Trade Organization also has a mandate to negotiate rules to prevent harmful subsidies. But we badly need a stronger political thrust for these plans to be systematically enforced, for words on paper to be translated into action. The Global Ocean Commission is currently developing a set of cost-effective, pragmatic and politically feasible proposals for strengthening ocean governance and enforcement, and building a coalition able to act on them.

Action means using advanced technology to assess and monitor worldwide capacity, like a global record of all vessels based on a mandatory single system of vessel identification; it means official agreements and systems for enforcement able to impose strict sanctions; it can also mean voluntary and joint efforts by major fishing nations like the ones set up to combat illegal fishing.

Above all, we need a coherent and global approach to ocean governance and management that also encompasses development and trade policy.

It is high time the world addressed excessive global fishing power. This is why the European Commission is inviting Fisheries Ministers from around the globe to meet in Thessaloniki on 13 and 14 March 2014: to ride the momentum of the reforms in the EU and drive the international debate forward. Let's work together to make both our ecosystems and our economies sustainable.