• The COVID-19 recovery is a chance to foster a truly sustainable ocean economy.
  • To that end, the world must work together to end harmful subsidies that encourage overfishing and exploitation.
  • Funds should be diverted to encourage sustainable fishing practices - and the WTO has a crucial role to play.

Discussions are raging on where and how governments should apply stimulus for their post-COVID-19 economic recovery plans. Will they, for example, support economic sectors which we know are causing irreversible damage to the environment and the natural world, such as the fossil fuels sector? Or are the recovery plans a unique chance to finally bring our production and consumption patterns in line with environmental imperatives and commitments to sustainable development?

The way we use and interact with ocean resources must be part of this discussion. The choice we face is whether to continue pouring public funds into practices that incentivize large industrial fishing fleets and operations that are putting life in the ocean at risk – or instead to stimulate action that will help us replenish ocean life and marine biodiversity. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has been discussing this issue for many years, which is also enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) endorsed five years ago by the UN General Assembly. Now is the time for action.

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As terrible as COVID-19 is, there may be a silver lining; it may provide the world with an opportunity to foster a sustainable ocean economy that puts people and ocean biodiversity first by saying no to harmful subsidies – that is, those that lead to overfishing and over exploitation.

The double crises of COVID-19 and ocean biodiversity depletion demand that governments worldwide focus their spending on the things that matter to us most – not to fund what ails us by jeopardizing ocean biodiversity and the livelihoods of the tens of millions of people who depend on it.

Rather than being an obstacle to reining in harmful fisheries subsidies, for example, the pandemic should be seen as an opportunity to reach a sustainable deal at the WTO on eliminating and/or redirecting current harmful fisheries subsidies estimated at $22 billion a year (see figure below).

A breakdown of global fishing subsidies in 2018
A breakdown of global fishing subsidies in 2018
Image: Sumaila et al.

As governments around the world continue to release funds to support low-income households, students, seniors, and small and medium-sized businesses, spending should be earmarked for benign ocean economic activities that reinforce positive feedback from people to nature and vice versa, rather than the reverse. Subsidies that help to eliminate overfishing, overcapacity, illegal fishing and other harmful ocean economic activities as well as support a low-carbon economic transition – that is, the so-called beneficial subsidies – are what are needed.

Subsidies are stymying the SDGs

Subsidies that are disproportionately provided to the large industrial fishing sub-sector serve to undermine the SDGs by aggravating hunger, poverty and gender inequality in coastal communities worldwide. Such deprivations imposed on coastal communities that depend on fish for their livelihoods pushes fishers in these communities to literally ‘hang on the last fish’, thereby reinforcing negative feedback from people to nature, and – in the next cycle – from nature to people.

In the case of fisheries subsidies, we have a narrow window to shift the focus of current subsidies from harmful to beneficial outcomes at the WTO, which is currently negotiating an agreement between all countries to discipline harmful fisheries subsidies. Governments should provide support to lessen the burden of COVID-19 on the fishing sector - and this support should be decoupled completely from overfishing. This means that any subsidy that reduces the cost of fishing (such as fuel subsidies) and/or props up revenues from fishing artificially should be avoided like the coronavirus itself. Similarly, support should go to businesses employing carbon-reduction strategies and the implementation and delivery of clean, renewable ocean energy.

Government subsidies should be directed towards ocean biodiversity monitoring as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation projects that provide jobs to communities that have been disproportionately impacted by overfishing and oil and gas development, for example. Indigenous communities such as the Unist'ot'en Clan of the Wet'suwet'en Nation of Canada or the Ogoni people of Nigeria, for instance, have been on the front lines, defending the environment and their human rights. Countries should support programmes that provide alternative economic opportunities to these warriors for environmental and social justice while contributing to a sustainable ocean economy.

Governments have many fiscal stimulus options that will deeply impact the way our society functions both during and after the COVID-19 crisis. To ensure that coastal communities and participants in the ocean economy at large can continue supporting themselves and their families after the economic and social upheaval imposed on us by COVID-19, governments need to place ocean sustainability and the people at the forefront of any spending policies. The need for economic interventions invites a unique opportunity for the world to demonstrate the ability to put together subsidy packages that do not reinforce negative feedback between people and nature and vice versa.

In some ways, fish are like people. A heathy person is in a better position to withstand a COVID-19 attack than a person with pre-existing conditions. Overfishing is a pre-existing condition for fish stocks and therefore eliminating harmful subsidies by reducing overcapacity and illegal fishing will put fish stocks in a position to withstand multiple stressors such as those stemming from global warming, ocean acidification, deoxygenation, plastic and other marine pollution, and the multiple impacts from increased trade-related shipping operations.

The urgency of reaching a sustainable ocean economy by, among other things, eliminating harmful subsidies means that the world cannot afford to let the current pandemic put things on hold at the WTO. And so with the postponement of the WTO’s twelfth Ministerial Conference, alternative ways must be found for negotiators to connect and keep working if they are to reach a deal in 2020. This disruption puts even greater responsibilities on all citizens of the world - and WTO negotiators in particular - to give Ambassador Santiago Wills, Director General Roberto Azevêdo and the new General Counsel Chair at the WTO, Ambassador David Walker, our full support so they can use their combined leadership to drive through an agreement to discipline harmful fisheries subsidies by the end of this year.

By achieving the above goal, they would show that, despite its critics, the WTO can be a crucial intergovernmental organization that can get things done.