Just this once, anti-fishing organizations can fall back on capitalistic economics to make their case - with huge increases in fuel costs, it may be time to have government-run fisheries rather than spend more money on fuel subsidies currently given to fishing fleets.

In addition, it would actually save money to invest in re-training fishers, says University of British Columbia fisheries economist Rashid Sumaila, a 2008 Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation.

Dramatic fuel price increases over the past weeks have sparked large-scale protests by fishers around the world. In France, fishers set up blockades at several ports while Japanese squid fishing boats halted operations for two days. Similar events have taken place in Australia, Nigeria and the Philippines.

“The overwhelming demand from the fishing industry is for governments to increase fuel subsidies to offset higher fuel costs, which constitute up to 60 percent of the cost of fishing,” says Sumaila, director of the Fisheries Economics Unit at the UBC Fisheries Centre. “But that would simply dig a deeper hole both economically and environmentally.”

In the first study of its kind, Sumaila has been tracking the economic impact of government fuel subsidies since 2002. He has found that governments around the world spend $6.4 billion annually on fuel subsidies for fishing fleets, 80 per cent of which are handed out by governments in developed countries.

“Many of these operations would not be economically viable if not for these subsidies,” says Sumaila. The European Commission announced last week it aimed to release up to 600 million euros (US$940 million) in aid to EU fishers to help them cope with soaring fuel prices.

“More and more fish populations around the world are being depleted, and we are approaching the point of no return,” said fisheries biologist Dr. Ellen Pikitch, Executive Director of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, which administers the Pew Fellows program. “Governments can immediately reduce the pressure on dwindling stocks by cutting fuel subsidies and adopting smarter fisheries management plans that protect the fishes’ environment from being ravaged.”

The latest findings of Sumaila’s study, titled 'Fuel price increase, subsidies, overcapacity, and resource sustainability,' will be published in the September issue of ICES Journal of Marine Science. Sumaila’s team is also helping identify long-term solutions for beleaguered global fisheries. A recent survey of fishers in Hong Kong by his graduate students Louise Teh and William Cheung found up to 75 per cent of those interviewed were willing to depart from their “way of life” if given appropriate compensation and retraining.

“More than half of the employers in the marine recreation sector we interviewed indicated they’d be willing to hire fishers,” says Teh. The study was published recently in the International Journal of Social Economics.

“Taxpayers’ money would be better spent helping fishers establish other long term sources of income,” Sumaila adds. “This will solve pressing issues in the fishing industry and ease the pressure on global fish stocks.”