man on fishing boat in rough seas

Forecasting the effects of global fisheries subsidies reform


Despite the fact that nearly 90% of global fish stocks are either fully exploited or overfished, governments around the world continue to provide billions of dollars in subsidies to support the fisheries sector. These subsidies are often targeted at reducing or completely offsetting operational costs, fuel costs, and the cost of building new vessels or bringing more sophisticated technologies onto existing vessels, and thus often incentivize fishermen to remove more fish from the water. These subsidies are known to contribute to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, as well as other unsustainable fishing practices. Approximately three billion people on the planet rely on the oceans for their protein, thus reforming subsidies and curbing overfishing has been identified as a critical step towards ensuring global food security and protecting the marine environment.

Our team has been evaluating a suite of questions related to fishery subsidy reform, specifically with regard to the ways in which global fishing fleets, and therefore fish stocks, would be likely to respond to a variety of fishery subsidy reform policies under consideration by the World Trade Organization (WTO).


Using satellite data from Global Fishing Watch, our team identified individual vessels likely to be affected by the different subsidy reform proposals under consideration by the WTO. Once we identified the portion of the global fleet likely to be affected by each proposed subsidy reform, we used a bioeconomic model to forecast the effects of reduced fishing effort (as a result of the reform proposals) on the health of fish stocks around the world. 

We are bolstering this existing “structural” approach to subsidy-reform-modeling with empirical evidence describing the way real-world fishing fleets have previously responded to the implementation of subsidies using Mexico as a case study, where managers have recently implemented significant changes to the way they subsidize fisheries. We leverage these policy changes to evaluate their impacts and examine the evolution of a fishery after harmful subsidies have been removed at a fine scale. Our analyses will allow us to draw causal inferences about the relationships between fuel subsidies, fisheries health, and subsequently fisher welfare in Mexico, with lessons learned that can be applied more broadly.

Key Findings

Results from our initial modeling effort suggest that globally coordinated, and ambitious, subsidy reforms could have significant benefits for ocean health. 

We created two decision-support tools that were used directly by WTO negotiators to consider tradeoffs associated with various approaches to reforming fisheries subsidies. Our results will inform WTO negotiations aimed at adopting a global agreement on reforming these subsidies during their Ministerial Conference in Fall of 2021.


This work is being completed in partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Harmful Fisheries Subsidies Project.