Nature and Biodiversity

Overfishing is a social injustice. To end it, we need to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies.


Every year, $22 billion is spent to subsidize overfishing, which overexploits the ocean's resources and puts food and job security at risk. Image: REUTERS/Stringer

Peter Thomson
UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Ocean and Co-Chair, Friends of Ocean Action
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SDG 14: Life Below Water

  • More than one-third of global fish stocks are being overfished.
  • Every year, $22 billion is spent to subsidize overfishing, which overexploits the ocean's resources and puts food and job security at risk.
  • This environmental and social justice issue can be stopped by eliminating harmful fisheries subsidies.

Fish in the ocean can seem a world away from the real-life struggles of people on land. But every year, $22 billion in public funds are being spent to subsidize overfishing, which puts food and job security at risk around the world.

Since the great majority of these subsidies goes to industrial fishing fleets, the very survival of countless coastal communities relying on small-scale artisanal fishing is being jeopardized.

Today is World Fisheries Day – an important reminder of the need to stop the perverse practice of subsidizing industrial fishing fleets that are overexploiting the ocean’s resources.

Five years ago at the United Nations, world leaders consensually agreed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which includes the elimination of harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020. The target explicitly aims to end overfishing, illegal fishing and the overcapacity of fishing fleets.

How much progress have we made towards ending overfishing? Image: UN

According to this year’s biennial report from the Food and Agriculture Organization, more than one-third of global fish stocks are being overfished. The problem is particularly acute in many developing countries, whose fish are being caught and shipped away by subsidized industrial fishing fleets.

These industrialized fleets are capable of traveling long distances, arriving in fishing grounds to deplete fish stocks that were traditionally harvested in a sustainable manner by local small-scale artisanal fishers. Some governments use public money to pay for part of the fuel required for these long sea voyages, an activity described by critics as “harmful capacity-enhancing subsidies”.

Most of the SDGs mature in 2030, but elements of the goal of conserving and sustainably using the ocean’s resources (SDG 14) were considered so urgent that world leaders agreed four of its targets should be fast-tracked for implementation by 2020. They are:

  • sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts, including by strengthening their resilience and taking action for their restoration (SDG14.2);
  • effectively regulate harvesting and end overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices and implement science-based management plans (SDG14.4);
  • conserve at least 10% of coastal and marine areas (SDG14.5); and
  • prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and refrain from introducing new such subsidies (SDG14.6).

How much progress has been made towards ending overfishing?

Where are we now with these targets? It is fair to say that much progress has been made since 2015, but as we come to the end of 2020, much work remains to be done to hit the targets. Last week, the declaration of the Atlantic’s largest completely protected marine area, in the shape of nearly 700,000 km2 of Tristan da Cunha’s surrounding waters, was a huge leap forward. But the previous month, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) failed to declare the three long-awaited Antarctic large marine protected areas that would have secured SDG14.5.

On the SDG14.4 front, the number of countries party to FAO’s Port State Measures Agreement, a legal instrument to combat illegal fishing, has increased to 67. But with more than one-third of global fish stocks being harvested beyond biologically sustainable levels, it is obvious that better management is required.

A lot is at stake. According to World Bank figures, 120 million full-time and part-time workers are directly dependent on commercial fisheries value chains, and 91% of all fishers and fish workers are employed in small-scale fisheries. Beyond this, more than 90% of small-scale fishers live in developing countries and 90-95% of small-scale fish landings are destined for local human consumption. An estimated 47% of the total workforce in small-scale fisheries are women, which in developing countries equates to 56 million jobs, primarily in post-harvest and trade activities.

FAO says that management is the best form of conservation, thus the success of SDG14.4 will ultimately be determined by the extent to which we better manage our global fish stocks to be within biologically sustainable levels.

On ending harmful fisheries subsidies (SDG14.6), the jury is still out. Achieving SDG14.6 is effectively in the hands of the countries currently negotiating at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva. They have been negotiating conscientiously for the last four years, working towards arrangements to ban harmful fisheries subsidies. With the 2020 target of SDG14.6 near, these negotiations are now coming to a head.

The WTO has this mandate because subsidies discipline is one of the organization’s core functions. Experience shows that subsidies are addictive – and that once in a system, they are difficult to go without. No doubt this is why for so long some WTO members have found harmful subsidies difficult to eliminate.


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

With the biennial WTO ministerial conference postponed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it is now in the hands of the WTO General Council to deliver on SDG14.6. The Council is expected to meet in mid-December, while in the interim period, WTO members are continuing negotiations under the Chairmanship of Colombia’s Ambassador Santiago Wills.

Having been part of the international negotiations that led up to the adoption of SDG14.6, I can affirm it was motivated by broad recognition and deep concern that harmful fisheries subsidies are one of the key drivers of the ecosystem collapses now occurring within the ocean. All WTO delegations involved in the subsidies negotiations thus carry an immense responsibility on behalf of people and planet to stay true to the Sustainable Development Goals and deliver the required agreement on ending harmful fisheries subsidies.

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