DO SUB­SI­DIES WORK?

Al­ter­na­tive pro­grammes should be cre­ated to boost liveli­hood of small-scale fish­er­men

New Straits Times - - Opinion - The writer is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Tun Ab­dul Razak School of Govern­ment, Uni­razak

THERE is grow­ing be­lief that sub­si­dies can lead to sus­tain­able fish­eries and con­trib­ute to the well­be­ing of fish­er­men if there is better man­age­ment of fish­ing and har­vest­ing meth­ods.

In Malaysia, fish­eries’ sub­si­dies in­clude fuel, monthly al­lowance, catch in­cen­tives, fish­ing equip­ment and other in­vest­ments in in­fra­struc­ture for fish­eries de­vel­op­ment. The pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tion from sub­si­dies to re­source con­ser­va­tion and well­be­ing of fishes is im­por­tant for the liveli­hood of coastal fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties.

Fish­eries’ sub­si­dies re­duce the cost of op­er­a­tion and gen­er­ally mo­ti­vate fish­er­men to do more fish­ing, hence, it is dif­fi­cult to achieve con­ser­va­tion goals in fish­eries.

Fish­eries is a com­plex mat­ter in Malaysia be­cause fish­er­men use dif­fer­ent types of fish­ing equip­ment. Tra­di­tional fish­er­men use small boats with low-pow­ered en­gines at the near-shore coastal ar­eas. For ar­eas within 30 nau­ti­cal miles from the shore and off­shore fish­ing be­yond 30 nau­ti­cal miles, fish­er­men use large com­mer­cial trawls. Tra­di­tional fish­er­men spend less hour fish­ing, and har­vest low amount of fish compared with com­mer­cial fish­er­men. There is a de­bate on the im­pact of fish­eries’ sub­si­dies on the en­vi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic con­di­tions of small-scale fish­er­men.

The govern­ment in­tro­duced fish­eries’ sub­si­dies in 1970s in the form of di­rect liveli­hood sup­port to poor fish­er­men. Fuel sub­sidy in­tro­duced in 2008 has be­come the ma­jor com­po­nent of fish­eries’ sub­si­dies, which ac­counts for 67 per cent (RM474 mil­lion) of the to­tal sub­si­dies in 2012 (Eco­nomic Plan­ning Unit re­port, 2013).

The re­cip­i­ents for the fuel were mainly small-scale tra­di­tional fish­er­men, who com­prise more than 70 per cent of the fish­er­men in the coun­try. Fish­er­men have re­ceived cash as­sis­tance (1Malaysia Peo­ple’s Aid, or BR1M), which ac­counts for 24 per cent of the to­tal fish­eries’ sub­si­dies (RM172.8 mil­lion) in 2012.

Gen­er­ally, fuel sub­si­dies are viewed as bad as they con­trib­ute to ca­pac­ity en­hance­ment in fish­eries. Ex­cess fish­ing ca­pac­ity may cause de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of the re­source and pose neg­a­tive im­pact on the well­be­ing of the poor­est fish­ing com­mu­nity.

A re­cent study high­lighted the im­pact of fish­eries’ sub­si­dies on the eco­nomic con­di­tions of fish­ers and marine re­sources in Malaysia. The study was con­ducted in three coastal small scale fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties of Tereng­ganu, Kedah and Se­lan­gor.

The re­sults found that fish­ing ef­forts of small-scale fish­er­men was sub­stan­tially less compared with fish­er­men of com­mer­cial boats. The av­er­age fish catch per hour of fish­ing (hour/per month) for tra­di­tional fish­er­men was sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent from com­mer­cial boats (trawls). The com­mer­cial ves­sels were able to catch 12 times more than tra­di­tional fish­ing boats. This in­di­cates that the rel­a­tively low-pow­ered boats op­er­at­ing at nearshore ar­eas were less ef­fi­cient. The cost of fish­ing op­er­a­tion in­creased, fish­er­men spent more than 70 per cent of to­tal op­er­a­tional cost for fuel use. Tra­di­tional and com­mer­cial fish­er­men used ex­tra fuel from open mar­ket as the quan­tity of sub­sidised fuel was not ad­e­quate.

The av­er­age fish­ing in­come for the large boat op­er­a­tors was six times higher than tra­di­tional fish­er­men. The larger boat own­ers were able to in­vest in mod­ern fish­ing equip­ment that sub­stan­tially in­creased catch and in­come while small-scale fish­er­men failed to in­crease sub­stan­tial in­come from fish­eries’ sub­si­dies.

This sug­gests that fuel sub­si­dies has en­cour­aged more fish­ing, es­pe­cially the large ves­sels with in­creased catch through ex­ces­sive fish­ing. The ev­i­dence shows that there is inequitable dis­tri­bu­tion of the ben­e­fits.

The ma­jor­ity of the tra­di­tional small-scale fish­er­men re­ceived cash aid from BR1M. The govern­ment has in­creased cash aid since 2015. The re­sults shows that BR1M helped many poor fish­er­men, who have no al­ter­na­tive liveli­hood earn­ing. The govern­ment has in­tro­duced fuel sub­sidy ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tion to pro­vide sus­tain­able ben­e­fits for the poor­est com­mu­nity.

The re­sults of the study also sug­gest that the fuel sub­sidy pro­gramme may not be an ef­fec­tive strat­egy for boost­ing in­come for the ar­ti­sanal (small-scale) fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties.

Some al­ter­na­tive in­come gen­er­at­ing pro­grammes should be cre­ated to boost their liveli­hood. Cre­ation of non-fish­ing eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties in the tourism and aqua­cul­ture sec­tors may re­duce over­fish­ing and de­pen­dency on fuel sub­sidy for fish­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.

The study has shown that the fish­eries’ sub­si­dies has at­tracted fish­er­men, which leads to an in­crease in fish­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. No doubt, fish­eries’ sub­si­dies pro­vide ben­e­fits for ar­ti­sanal fish­er­men but ex­cess fish­ing cre­ates pres­sure on the re­source.

Given the fish­eries man­age­ment and gover­nance, these prob­lems can­not be sim­ply re­duced with the elim­i­na­tion of sub­si­dies, both so­cially and po­lit­i­cally; but ef­fec­tive plan­ning and de­sign­ing of sub­si­dies’ pro­grammes may im­prove the well­be­ing of fish­er­men.

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