The potential collapse of fish populations is a serious environmental problem, but unlike some of the more daunting challenges we face, it turns out all we have to do is stop paying for it. Global subsidies to industrial fishing companies have reached $27 billion according to a recent Global Ocean Commission report (h/t Gwynn Guilford at Quartz), led by the US, EU, China and Japan, and many industrial fishing companies would be unprofitable without those subsidies – zombies, in economic terms.

Overfishing, longer hauls, and higher costs are a vicious circle

The issue is that overfishing has already severely damaged natural fishing stocks, so trawlers have to go further and fish deeper to bring back the same amount of fish. The only reason they can do this and remain competitive is because between 15% and 30% of global fishing subsidies go to fuel costs. Eliminating those subsidies doesn’t mean that all of those companies simply go out of business, but the ones further up the cost curve probably would and sustainable fishing practices that are currently disadvantaged will become more competitive.

Seafood would carry a higher price tag, but that’s just because part of the current price is paid via IRS. Besides, it would be nice to actually start getting the fish that we pay for again. There wouldn’t even be that many jobs loss since the largest vessels only employ 4% of fishermen.

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Northeast Atlantic fish stocks are recovering following EC regulations

What’s really depressing about this is that if industrial fishing were more controlled, fish populations could bounce back and eliminate the need for such aggressive tactics as restrictions in northern and western Europe have proven.

“The successful recovery of fish stocks in the Northeast Atlantic proves to me that with the right rules in place, it is possible to bring overfishing to an end. When good science is available, when catches are set at the right level and when – most important of all – the fishermen join in the efforts to protect the stocks, then I am sure we will see further improvements ahead,” said European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Maria Damanaki, announcing the EC’s annual consultation paper on fishing opportunities.

She worries that the Mediterranean is still being overfished and that its fisheries could collapse, but unlike some environmental issues where the momentum of past actions is so hard to deal with (eg climate change), fish populations can recover relatively quickly if allowed to do so.