Fuel subsidies for EU fishing vessels must end now

The French trawler 'Thomas Nicolas II' sails past a Dutch trawler in the North Sea, off the coast of northern France, December 7, 2020.  REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

The French trawler "Thomas Nicolas II" sails past a Dutch trawler in the North Sea, off the coast of northern France, December 7, 2020. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

As the ocean’s health deteriorates, Europe’s Green Deal must stop fishing’s fuel subsidies and protect marine ecosystems

Hans Eichel is former German finance minister (1999-2005), Rashid Sumaila is University Killam professor and director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, and Sebastian Villasante is an economics professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela.

The ocean is a major ally in the climate crisis. By capturing 20-30% of our carbon dioxide emissions each year, our seas are a powerful carbon sink. But the continued increase in greenhouse gas emissions and destruction of marine ecosystems are upsetting the physical and chemical balance of the ocean and reducing its resilience.

Despite the proliferation of international declarations, we are failing to respond adequately or rapidly enough as the health of the ocean deteriorates. Without delay, we must decarbonise our societies, and help our marine ecosystems recover by protecting them from destructive activities.

Like all other economic sectors, the fishing industry needs to shift away from fossil fuels.

In recent years, it has been particularly badly impacted by the rise in fuel prices. As a result, 66% of large-scale EU fisheries and 87% of distant water fisheries are not profitable, compared to 40% for small-scale fisheries, according to the European Commission.

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At the same time, a recent report published by the NGO Oceana shows that, on average, the European fleet is responsible for 17% of the direct annual CO2 emissions generated by the fishing sector worldwide.

The most energy-intensive fishing vessels are the biggest beneficiaries of fuel tax exemptions because of the large amount of fuel they burn each year. They also have a particularly high impact on ecosystems, such as trawlers – which release far more carbon by disturbing the seabed.

This equation is untenable because the model on which it is based is neither economically rational nor sustainable. The most destructive fishing practices receive the greatest support from public money. They are the least able to decarbonise, while having the largest negative impacts on the marine environment.

European policymakers cannot push for a green transition while maintaining fuel subsidies for the fishing industry.

The EU’s credibility and leadership

The European Union is not alone in this problem: fuel subsidies are a source of disagreement at the World Trade Organization, where negotiations on fisheries subsidies have been underway since 2001 and led to an initial agreement last June.

The EU is a major player in the WTO process. By tackling this difficult issue in its own legislation, the EU would undoubtedly strengthen its credibility and leadership in international ocean governance.

Today, European leaders have an opportunity to act on this crucial issue by adopting the proposed revised Energy Taxation Directive which, among other things, calls for an end to the fuel tax exemption for fishing vessels.

Admittedly, with the ongoing energy crisis and rises in the cost of living, eliminating a fuel tax exemption is not the easiest decision to take. However, given the EU's climate change objectives, the Energy Taxation Directive must become an instrument to support decarbonisation and climate neutrality. Fossil fuel subsidies need to be eliminated – not least because public budgets face severe challenges, too.

Coupled with an ambitious plan to transition fisheries to a low-emission model, it would mark a major turning point both in marine environmental protection and planet-heating emissions cuts – helping to reach the objectives of the European Green Deal.

Stopping ocean destruction

Ending financial incentives for fossil fuels is a good start, but it should not overshadow another even more fundamental challenge: stopping the destruction of the ocean.

Experts from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) are clear: fishing has been the main factor in the destruction of marine ecosystems for the past fifty years.

Therefore, transitioning the fishing sector towards a low-carbon, environmentally benign model cannot consist of transforming fishing fleets that will continue to destroy marine ecosystems with ever more efficient and damaging gears.

Unfortunately, apart from a few good-natured reminders of the need to have healthy fish stocks and preserve marine ecosystems, neither the European Commission nor the European Council have yet to demonstrate any fundamental change of direction in their approach to fisheries management.

This is not the time for procrastination or ambivalent measures that seek to perpetuate an obsolete model. We must act now to protect our oceans to ensure fishery resources for years to come, and for the benefit of future generations.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • Fossil fuels
  • Net-zero
  • Climate policy
  • Loss and damage
  • Biodiversity

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