WTO deal is within reach to remove harmful fishing subsidies and halt global fish meltdown

To mark the occasion of newly appointed Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s term on 1 March 2021, the Stop Funding Overfishing campaign positioned an ice sculpture of a fish in front of the WTO’s HQ.

To mark the occasion of newly appointed Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s (2nd R) term on 1 March 2021, the Stop Funding Overfishing campaign positioned an ice sculpture of a fish in front of the WTO’s HQ. Image: Mark Henley/Panos Pictures

Gemma Parkes
Communications Lead, Ocean Action Agenda, World Economic Forum
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  • Every year, governments around the world pump $22 billion of public money into efforts that encourage overfishing.
  • SDG 14 has explicit target to eliminate such harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020 through the conclusion of WTO negotiations that began 20 years ago.
  • Under its new Director General, the WTO is within reach of a deal that will bring immense benefit for ocean life of both the human and aquatic kinds.

If you happened to pass by the World Trade Organization’s Swiss headquarters last week in Geneva, you’d have encountered something a little out of the ordinary: a large ice sculpture, in the shape of a shoal of fish, melting onto the ground. The accompanying message? Stop the fish meltdown. But what does that mean?

When I first began as an ocean campaigner in the early 2000s, I remember hearing then about the global negotiations to end fisheries subsidies deemed “harmful” – those that go towards increasing overfishing – which had dragged on already for several years. And I remember thinking, even then, that it was the quintessential no-brainer for advancing environmental conservation.

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These harmful fisheries subsidies are used to build ever bigger industrial vessels and pay for fuel, so these megaships can travel to distant waters to fish out even the remotest of fish populations. This also jeopardises the livelihoods and food sources of small-scale fishers in coastal communities around the world, and is pushing countless fish stocks to the brink of collapse through short-sighted overfishing.

Every year, governments around the world pump some $22 billion of public money into efforts that encourage overfishing. It’s no good for fish, no good for sustainable fishers, no good for fish consumers – and not even any good for the long-term viability of any fisheries at all. These funds must be transitioned into supporting positive efforts, like monitoring and control, scientific research, conservation, ocean protection, and training for small-scale coastal fishing communities.

Healthy ocean SDG

In 2015, world governments agreed unanimously to a suite of ambitious global goals designed to put and keep humanity on a path to greater health, wellbeing, equality and prosperity, in ways that do not deplete the planet’s resources on which we all depend. These 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, include a goal dedicated to a healthy ocean. SDG14 has a target that explicitly pledges to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies “by 2020” through the conclusion, finally, of those negotiations at the WTO that began two decades ago. Largely due to complications arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, WTO members failed to seal a deal again last year – though it must be recognized that excellent progress is still being made.

With a conclusion long overdue, it is extremely heartening also to see a new Director General take the helm of the WTO – especially one who has openly declared her commitment to reaching a positive and sustainable deal in the fisheries subsidies negotiations as one of her top priorities.

It is to Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, then, whose first day of her new mandate was on 1 March, that a coalition of civil society organizations – Stop Funding Overfishing, which includes Friends of Ocean Action – presented the melting ice fish sculpture, with this message to WTO members: stop the fish meltdown now by urgently concluding a deal.

Friends of Ocean Action

Fish can’t speak for themselves, so we do it for them. But the voices of significant groups of people, too, who are heavily impacted by the consequences of harmful fisheries subsidies, have often gone unheard. At Friends of Ocean Action, a group of over 65 global leaders across a range of sectors who are committed to fast-tracking action for a healthy ocean, we are doing our best to provide a megaphone for those most affected.

Last year, for example, we worked with the Environmental Justice Foundation in promoting among WTO members a compelling short film that starkly shows the devastating impact of heavily subsidized industrial fishing operations on small-scale fishers, who make up over 90% of fish workers around the world. We also work with the Low-Impact Fishers of Europe (LIFE), a Brussels-based group that speaks on behalf of small-scale fishers whose access to resources and markets are affected because the largest share of fisheries subsidies, some 80% or more, benefits large-scale industrial fleets.

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Harmful fisheries subsidies are creating and upholding a situation that is nothing but perverse – we are paying to empty the ocean of fish, with only negative consequences for fishing communities, the more than 3 billion people who rely on seafood as their primary protein source, and life in the ocean. The ocean campaigner in me is heartsore. But I am also hopeful a deal is truly within reach that will bring immense benefit for ocean life of both the human and aquatic kinds.

What matters now is that differences are bridged, compromises are reached and a deal is done, as soon as possible, without undermining its environmental integrity: for the sake of the survival of countless communities that rely on fishing for their livelihoods, for sustainable seafood, and for the abundance and resilience of life in the ocean for generations to come.

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