WTO Risks Reputation on Fishing Subsidies Reform

Subsidies are a major driver behind the overexploitation of marine ecosystems (file image courtesy WTO ITCC)

Published Dec 14, 2018 1:08 PM by Maina Waruru

The World Trade Organisation must make progress on reforming global fishing subsidies to save the ocean and its own reputation, say international trade officials.

Ahead of the WTO ministerial summit in January next year, member states must focus on safeguarding the future of the world’s seas and inland water, rather than increasing production, said officials at the Blue Economy Summit in Nairobi in November.

“We must approach these talks with sustenance of world fisheries as a priority,” said Roberto Zapata Barradas, chair of WTO’s Negotiating Group on Rules. “The process should address the controversial question of subsidies, taking into account the interests of fish farmers and traditional fishing communities.”

Central to this year’s talks will be an international deal to curb harmful fishing subsidies. These are government payments or tax breaks that contribute to overcapacity, overfishing and illegal fishing (IUU) globally.

The 164 member countries of the trade body will aim for a binding agreement to eliminate these subsidies, an issue that has been under discussion for more than two decades. A strong, renewed commitment will help to achieve an urgently-needed deal.

It is “unfathomable” that some fishing companies are still engaged in IUU fishing while enjoying subsidies from their own governments, said Ricardo Menendez-Ortizo, chief executive of International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD), based in Geneva. Negotiators have a duty to come up with binding commitments that will stand the test of time, he said.

The talks must be conducted between countries in good faith, with transparency, inclusivity and free of political mistrust, said speakers. The outcomes should be “enforceable”.

Subsidies paid to the fishing industry amount to around US$35 billion per year, globally. Of this, US$20 billion is given in forms that enhance the capacity of large fishing fleets, such as fuel subsidies and tax exemption programmes, according to the European Parliament’s Committee on Fisheries.

Around 60 percent of the world’s assessed fish stocks are fully exploited and 30% are already overexploited, according to the 2016 SOFIA report, published by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. Curbing subsidies that underpin fleet expansion can address this.

There is a need for urgent reforms on subsidies law governing fisheries, according to Ernesto Fernandez-Monge, fisheries expert at the Pew Charitable Trust. He said research shows that subsidies are harmful to the health of the world’s fish stocks.

“Regulating fishing activity is important, [but] we must take care to protect jobs and know that people go wherever fish go,” said Stephen De Boer, Canada’s envoy to WTO.

Many governments in the developing world lack the capacity to enforce laws to prevent harmful fishing activities in their own waters, according to Peter Wekesa, fisheries expert at the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) secretariat in Belgium. As a result, many coastal communities in developing countries continued to suffer from IUU fishing activities.

He said these countries often have undeveloped fishing sectors that would benefit from protection of rules reached at the WTO talks.

“The year 2019 is pivotal for the future of fisheries in the world, an agreement must be secured,” he noted. “WTO talks must bring together experts and negotiators to raise the profile and discuss the issue of subsidies to save our fish stocks,” said Ernesto Fernandez-Monge a law professor at Georgetown University.

A commitment to reform subsidies was first made in 2011 at a WTO ministerial Conference on Fisheries in Doha.

The aim of the January talks will be to “clarify and improve” existing rules on fishing subsidies, set at the 2005 Hong Kong ministerial conference, including a call to prohibit subsidies that contribute to “overcapacity and overfishing”.

A similar meeting was convened in 2017 in Buenos Aires, Argentina where ministers agreed on a programme to conclude the negotiation at a ministerial conference in 2019.

Maina Waruru is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya with over 20 years experience writing about science and development, environment, climate, energy, and health.

This article appears courtesy of China Dialogue Ocean and may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.