Sustainable Development Goal 14.6 is the UN’s clarion call for harmful fisheries subsidies to be prohibited by 2020, a task of global importance assigned to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Specifically, SDG14.6 says: “‘[B]y 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and refrain from introducing new such subsidies”.

This target was set in the context of the SDGs and consensually adopted by the UN in September 2015. The WTO was identified as the implementing agency to fulfil this target, “recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developing countries should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations”.

Since then, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN has said that 33% of the world’s fish resources are overfished and 60% are being fished to their biologically sustainable limit. Meanwhile, we are living in a world in which, thanks to our growing human population, the demand for protein from the ocean is ever-increasing. Fisheries subsidies are the main driver of the overcapacity of industrial fishing fleets and thereby overfishing – removing these harmful subsidies has become a bare-faced necessity.

Providing public money to industrial fishing fleets to chase diminishing stocks of fish is patently irrational behaviour. It is reliably estimated that 85% of governments’ fisheries subsidies benefit large industrial fleets, thereby distorting markets to the detriment of small-scale artisanal fishers. The latter strives to make a living for themselves and their families and work to support local coastal communities, while industrial fleets deplete traditional fish stocks. The elimination of harmful fisheries subsidies would thus directly address the social and environmental dimensions of this fisheries collapse and assist the recovery of artisanal fishing.

Studies suggest that many industrial fisheries operating in the high seas (the ocean area beyond the 200-mile national jurisdictions) would not be economically feasible without government subsidies. This is owing to the high fuel costs for long-distance travel and the dragging of large trawl nets.

Without the elimination of harmful fisheries subsidies, it will most probably not be possible to reach some of the other vital targets enshrined within SDG14. The UN’s universal ocean goal, SDG14 aspires to “by 2020, sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts, including by strengthening their resilience, and take action for their restoration in order to achieve healthy and productive oceans”. This worthy target will not be reached if government subsidies supporting fishing fleet overcapacity are allowed to continue.

Another aim of SDG14 is to “effectively regulate harvesting and end overfishing, IUU fishing and destructive fishing practices and implement science-based management plans, in order to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible, at least to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield as determined by their biological characteristics”. Again, it will not be possible to meet these worthy targets unless WTO’s negotiations on removing harmful fisheries subsidies successfully conclude by the end of 2019.

Two years ago, WTO members agreed to engage in negotiations on fisheries subsidies, in particular, to establish a set of “disciplines” that would prohibit certain forms of subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing. It was also recognized that the adoption of a WTO Subsidies Elimination Agreement (WTO S.E.A.) is critical to treating the ocean’s resources in a sustainable manner.

Negotiations since have been divided into four clusters: elimination of subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing; subsidies affecting overfished stocks; subsidies that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity; and a compendium of cross-cutting issues which include discussion on how to implement special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries without compromising the environmental integrity of the agreement.

A recent communication submitted by a group of eight countries has identified no less than six possible options for how to incorporate these disciplines into the WTO’s legal system. A formula for capping fisheries subsidies that takes account of each country’s share of the world’s capture fisheries is getting traction. Originally proposed by the US and Australia, several other countries have proposed their own version of a formula for capping.

Whether the WTO S.E.A. should list the acceptable types of subsidies (positive subsidies that help fish stocks conservation and recovery and law enforcement, for example) and those that are unacceptable (those that hurt fish stocks, for example) is also part of the discussion. It is suggested that the green list approach is an attractive proposition because it can shift the burden of proof in line with the precautionary principle. But there is also the consideration that this approach could become a Pandora’s box compromising the environmental integrity and effectiveness of the agreement.

Also on the table is how often the effectiveness of the agreement should be reviewed. It is reported that some are proposing a review every five years, others every 10, while others suggest following the cycle of WTO ministerial conferences every two years.

This flurry of proposals is encouraging, as it demonstrates the degree to which WTO members are engaged and committed to concluding these negotiations. Fisheries subsidies have been discussed at the WTO for 20 years and the organization has never been so close to reaching an agreement on this subject - a subject that is now so critical to the conservation of marine life.

There are four months left for trade ministers, trade negotiators in Geneva and all friends of ocean action around the world to stand and deliver on the promises made. All hands on deck!

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the oceans?

Our oceans cover 70% of the world’s surface and account for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can't have a healthy future without healthy oceans - but they're more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our oceans means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

On 17 July 2019, the outgoing chair of the WTO negotiating group, Mexico’s Ambassador Roberto Zapata was reported as saying: “[T]he keywords for progress will be pragmatism and simplicity, as negotiators should be ready to negotiate compromises and focus on real differences rather than their preferences for particular words or phrases”.

It is time for positive consensual action; failure is not an option and, clearly in this case, the perfect must not be the enemy of the good. The conservation and sustainable use of the ocean’s resources as envisaged by SDG14 depends upon the WTO delivering on the prohibition of harmful fisheries subsidies. The world is watching.