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Time to end fisheries subsidies ‘madness’, urges UN special envoy

A fisherman off the coast of Lamu island in south-eastern Kenya in 2018, where inshore overfishing, illegal fishing methods and limited means of livelihood are some of the challenges the industry faces. (Keystone/EPA/DaiI Kurokawa)

Peter Thomson, the UN secretary general’s special envoy for the oceans, has urged countries to end the “environmental and economic madness” of subsidising harmful fishing operations ahead of a crucial World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting on 15 July aimed at unlocking a long-awaited deal. 

“At this critical stage of international negotiations to finalise the text of an agreement, we should all be urging our respective member states to do the right thing by the ocean,” he said during an event on Thursday hosted by Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition convened by the World Economic Forum.

“We have waited a long time, but we have faith that this is the year [member states] will deliver the required agreement,” he added.

The trade body has been trying for 22 years to reach an agreement to stop $22 billion in government subsidies contributing to declines in the world’s fish stocks but a deal has so far proved elusive, with member states missing a key deadline last December.

Since taking office in March, director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has made finalising the fisheries deal a top priority, with the virtual meeting of trade ministers on 15 July aimed at bringing the negotiation process as close to the finishing line as possible before the WTO 12th ministerial conference in December.

Read also:  WTO kicks off next round of fisheries talks as pressure mounts over long-awaited deal

WTO delegates have been working intensively to iron out differences and have the most advanced text as possible to present to ministers at the meeting, with a fifth version of the draft published by Ambassador Santiago Wills, chair of the talks, last week.

Introducing the revised version on Wednesday, Okonjo-Iweala said the text should help ministers to engage “in a way that will provide us the kind of push and political guidance that we need at this stage to be able to move towards conclusion”.

She added that the mood around the negotiating table had changed: “We should seize advantage of that mood to push towards concluding these negotiations”.

Putting more fish in the sea

The ocean is being depleted of fish at a worrying rate, with estimates from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization suggesting that more than a third of the world’s stocks are being fished at a rate that cannot be replenished.

Despite this, many governments provide grants to their fishing sector, for example, to help cover the costs for fuel or buying new vessels. And while some subsidies are beneficial, a large part is incentivising more fishing than the ocean can handle, as well as illegal fishing activities.  Subsidies are estimated to be as high as $35bn worldwide, of which $20bn directly contributes to overfishing.

Environmentalists argue that money saved from subsidies should be redirected and used instead to increase ocean biodiversity and mitigate the effects of climate change.  “Those funds could be so much better spent on helping coastal communities build a resilient future through the sustainable blue economy,” Thomson said.

According to Pew Charitable Trusts, a deal removing all harmful subsidies would boost the number, or biomass, of the world’s fish by 12.5 per cent by 2050, or about 35 million metric tonnes of fish.

“WTO members have a tremendous opportunity this July to seal the deal on an agreement two decades in the making that would end harmful fisheries subsidies,” said Isabel Jarrett, manager of the ending harmful fisheries subsidies program at The Pew Charitable Trusts, said.

Fishing in other countries’ back yards

Separate research released last week ahead of the July meeting, shows evidence that the world’s top industrial fishing nations are using fisheries subsidies programme to shift the risk of overfishing to other countries’ waters, including to least developed countries (LDCs) and the high seas.

China, Japan, Korea, Russia, the US, Thailand, Taiwan, Spain, Indonesia, and Norway are the world’s top 10 providers of harmful fisheries subsidies, spending a total of US $15.4bn, the study by advocacy group Oceana showed.

Looking solely at distant water fishing – activity beyond a country’s own waters – the ‘top 10’ spent $5.4bn in harmful subsidies fishing in the waters of 116 other nations, and another $800 million on the high seas.

According to co-author and Oceana board member, Dr. U. Rashid Sumaila, who also attended the Thursday Friends of Ocean Action event: “The mismatch between the cost and the benefits of fisheries subsidies has real moral and ethical implications. On average, twice the dollar amount of subsidies from foreign nations go toward enabling distant-water vessels to fish in Africa than what Africa provides to its own domestic fisheries.

These top subsidisers may therefore be supporting their own fishing fleets by transferring overfishing risks to the waters of countries that can least afford it.

Thompson said “the moral hazard of subsidised distant water fishing fleets of developed countries, exploiting the marine resources of developing countries, to the detriment of the latter's domestic fisheries and tourism officials” further exposed why harmful subsidies needed to be brought to a halt.

“The list goes on and that is why we have to end this madness,” he said.