Here’s a remarkable fact: Global fishery collapse is financed with tax money.

You already know that many nations are failing to enforce the laws that are essential to keeping our oceans healthy and abundant forever. Instead, they are presiding over a global ocean collapse. According to a report in Science, 29 percent of the world’s commercial fisheries have already collapsed.

This is terrible news for the billion people who turn to the ocean for protein, the hundreds of millions of people who need the sea for a livelihood, and the countless extraordinary marine creatures that don’t deserve to go the way of the buffalo.

What you will be surprised to learn is that massive overcapacity in the world’s fishing fleet is being paid for by taxes. A study by the University of British Columbia recently revealed that $30 to $40 billion in taxpayer subsidies is paid to the commercial fishing industry worldwide — $20 billion of which directly promotes the increase of fishing capacity. And the value of the world’s catch at dockside is only $80 to $90 billion.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

This means that there are fishing companies dragging huge nets through the ocean at a financial loss. The only way they are able to continue to do it is because they are subsidized by taxpayers’ yen, euros, yuan, and other currencies.

Indeed, one of the most destructive forms of fishing known to man — short of dynamite and cyanide — is bottom trawling. In this form of industrial fishing, hundred-yard-wide weighted nets are dragged along the bottom of the ocean. As you can imagine, it takes big engines that consume a lot of oil to drag these nets. Given the high cost of oil right now, most bottom trawling around the world — without subsidies — is unprofitable. The reason it continues is because governments are paying these fleets to keep dragging.

So here’s a simple idea: Let’s stop paying people to overfish.

Right now, for the first time in the all-too-often dismal story of the global mismanagement of our oceans, we have reason to hope for comprehensive, enforceable cuts in the subsidies that are driving global species to collapse. The World Trade Organization has put this item squarely on its agenda. Oceana, together with its allies like the World Wildlife Federation, has been pushing the WTO to make good on its promise. No nation wants to “unilaterally disarm” in the race to catch the last fish. That’s why the WTO is the best place to make this happen. It has the enforceable, multilateral authority needed to get the nations of the world to stop this crazy policy of paying commercial fleets to have too many boats chasing too few fish.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Happily, some of the world’s leading nations, among them the United States, have proposed very good language to the WTO that, if adopted, would cut these subsidies. I have the pleasure of chairing the Fisheries Subsidies Task Force, which advises the U.S. Trade Representative, Ambassador Susan Schwab. Last month, at our urging, both houses of Congress passed resolutions strongly supporting cuts in capacity-promoting subsidies.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!