Can smarter subsidies curb an unhealthy appetite for fishing?

59.5 million people depended on fisheries and aquaculture in 2018. Source: FAO

An unhealthy appetite for fish? In the past three decades, global fish consumption has surged by a stunning 122%. Yet today, only 66% of global stocks are fished within sustainable levels, in comparison to 90% in the 1970s.

“There is no healthy planet without a healthy ocean, and the healthy ocean is currently in decline", said Peter Thomson at a conference Tuesday on overfishing co-hosted by Geneva Environment Dialogues and the World Economic Forum.

“There are too many boats chasing too few fish”, he added.

Marine ecosystems feed people & generate jobs. If more sustainable fishing policies aren't adopted now, marine ecosystems will bite us back with devastating economic and health consequences. Here’s why:

  • Livelihoods 59.5 million people depended on fisheries and aquaculture in 2018.

  • Nutrition Fish is a major protein source for some 3.3 billion people around the globe, accounting for one-fifth of global animal protein consumption, said Keith Rockwell, a WTO official at Tuesday’s event.

How to combat overfishing. It is possible to reduce overfishing while still supporting the fishing sector, which is so important to health and livelihoods. One of the key ways to achieve that is to re-think how fisheries are subsidized.

Source: UNCTAD

Move away from fuel subsidies for fisheries. In 2009, global fisheries received a whopping $35 billion in subsidies, but 22% were geared towards making fuel cheaper for fishers - an “alarming” figure, said executive director of the Global Tuna Alliance Tom Pickerell, as policies that subsidize fuel are the “most likely” to promote overfishing, as well as illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, according to research by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). Another drawback of fuel subsidies is they tend to favour big businesses, who can more easily access the subsidies, while providing little benefit to fishermen themselves, particularly small boats and businesses in low income countries, who fish closer to shore and use less fuel. Other policies that also promote overfishing and illegal or unreported fishing are those that subsidize gear or bait - also mostly accessible to big fishing enterprises.

“Fishing subsidies disproportionately benefit big businesses, which generally only really provide jobs and significant incomes to few people”, said Pickerell.

“Illegal fishing is a crime, and yet we have public funds being spent in the form of subsidies to support [overfishing and IUU fishing]. It's just not rational”, said Thomson.

Smart subsidies for a sustainable future

  • Subsidies that support efficient business operations, develop human capital and help fishers deal with disasters can all prevent overfishing while delivering significant benefits to fishers, according to the OECD. These include programmes that hone fishers’ business or operational skills.

  • The OECD estimates that, if $US 5 billion in fuel subsidies were funnelled towards more training of fishers, the benefits would be significant - their incomes would improve by $US 2 billion, all while reducing depletion of fish stocks.

“Ensuring that fishers have access to working capital, have the skills needed for their businesses....can bring greater benefits to fishers at lower cost to governments, all while reducing the negative impact of support on the sustainability of fish stock”, said theOECD report.

Source: FAO

An opportunity to upend the status quo - WTO negotiations on fishing subsidies. Five years ago, leaders from 192 countries pledged, under Target 6 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 on Sustainable Oceans, to prohibit subsidies that contribute to overfishing by 2020, and to eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing - such as fuel, gear and bait subsidizes.

  • A WTO agreement regarding the elimination of these subsidies was supposed to have been reached at the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference in Kazakhstan, on 8-11 June 2020, but COVID-19 derailed negotiations as well as the planned conference.

  • Last week, the WTO presented a consolidated draft text in preparation for upcoming negotiations scheduled virtually on 21 July. Their aim is to seal the debate on fishing subsidies once and for all.

One slippery complication - fish swim. The WTO agreement has been particularly complicated to negotiate for a simple reason - fish swim long distances. Says Rockwell:

”Unlike steel factories, or herds of cattle, fish swim great distances, they move in and out of territorial waters.  Promoting sustainable fishing through WTO subsidy rules is extremely difficult, as the WTO is not a regional fisheries management organization. It's not the FAO, which has a strong record of identifying [harmful] subsidies for industry and agriculture..[and which has the] means to discipline those subsidies.”

The time is now. The WTO’s draft text provides the technical tools to do the job, but political issues still need to be resolved, says Rockwell.

“For the first time in 20 years, we now have a single paper from which members can work. The text covers most all of the key areas in the negotiations, though some thorny issues will require a bit more time. There are no surprises. It is based on the work of this specific issue facilitators and proposals submitted directly by members. The text is solution-oriented. The language is clear, and Members will know precisely how and why it has evolved in the way that it has.”

It’s up to Member States, but time is running out. There remain “very political issues” to be resolved, says Rockwell, and since WTO is a member-driven organization, the ministers, ultimately, will have the final say. But time is running out. Rockwell:

“If we don't set aside our differences in these negotiations [in July 2020], we will wake up one day and find there are no longer any fish over which to argue.”