Will WTO members act now to end harmful fisheries subsidies?

Fishingboat vessel fishing in a rough sea fisheries subsidies

Harmful fisheries subsidies fund overfishing, unsustainable fishing practices and threaten ocean life. Image: Getty Images.

Peter Thomson
UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Ocean and Co-Chair, Friends of Ocean Action
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  • Every year over $20 billion of taxpayers’ money funds harmful fisheries subsidies around the world.
  • Members of the WTO have been negotiating rules for over twenty years to prohibit these funds which enable overfishing.
  • Next month’s 12th Ministerial Conference is a chance to advance ocean protection and fulfil SDG14 target 6 to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies.

I have often said that we cannot have a healthy planet without a healthy ocean; therefore I’m glad to see this mantra is gaining traction. On 29 September 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres sent a letter to the 164 heads of state and government members of the World Trade Organization (WTO), stating that “a healthy ocean is at the heart of achieving all Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is crucial to the livelihoods and nutrition of billions of people across the planet”.

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In his letter the Secretary-General emphasized the role of fish in ocean ecosystems, lamenting the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate that 34.2% of assessed fish stocks are being overfished – a threefold increase since assessments began in 1974. This travesty is largely due to the continuation of harmful fisheries subsidies, one of the most ecologically damaging practices put into practice by our governments.

It dispenses over $20 billion of taxpayers’ money annually to, in effect, fund overfishing and overcapacity, and as a result illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. As fish populations steadily decline, these public funds allow vessels to continue fishing when and where it would otherwise not be economically viable. This is environmental and economic madness: we are paying to make ourselves poorer in the long term, akin to hiring a burglar to rob your own house.

Fulfil SDG14 and eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies

In 2015, as part of the UN’s SDGs, we all agreed that the world we want to build does not include harmful fisheries subsidies. Thus, target 6 of SDG 14 Life Below Water, specifically calls for an agreement to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020. The target description specifies that the WTO should remain in charge of the process of eliminating these subsidies, a role it has performed for more than two decades.

We are well past the target’s deadline. With the COVID-19 pandemic causing significant disruptions to negotiations, we now have to double-down on efforts to drive this process forward. The 12th WTO Ministerial Conference – 30 November to 3 December 2021 in Geneva – presents the perfect opportunity to finally conclude these negotiations. If the negotiators fail to do so, it would be tantamount to wilfully ignoring the UN Secretary-General’s recently declared “red alert for humanity”.


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

Director General of the WTO, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and chair of the negotiations, Ambassador Santiago Wills from Colombia, have dedicated extraordinary time and energy to the process of removing harmful fisheries subsidies. Like the rest of us, they know this issue is being seen by many as a test case for the credibility of the WTO and its support for sustainable development and environmental protection.

On 15 July 2015, Dr Okonjo-Iweala convened a special virtual ministerial meeting to resolve the deadlock of the WTO fisheries negotiations. More recently, in mid-October 2021, she travelled to Delhi to meet officials, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a bid to lift India’s reported obstruction to a deal on fisheries subsidies at the WTO’s upcoming Ministerial Conference.

Unfortunately, it is the artisanal fishing communities, many from developing countries, who bear the greatest brunt of these harmful fisheries subsidies. The WTO Subsidies Elimination Agreement, currently on the negotiating table, has been drawn up to affirm and protect the rights of small-scale artisanal fishers whose very livelihoods and communities are being continually threatened by large industrial fleets.


The SDGs represent a carefully balanced whole and they cannot be cherry-picked in good faith. If one chooses to block the implementation of a particular target, you should not then be surprised if the targets you hold particularly dear are blocked by others.

In the last four years of my service as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, I have endeavoured to champion the cause of the communities, ecosystems and future generations that have been impacted by the callous pillaging of marine ecosystems created by harmful fisheries subsidies. I journeyed to the last WTO Ministerial Conference held in Buenos Aires in December 2017 to advocate for an end to harmful fisheries subsidies. I did so because I am convinced that eliminating these subsidies is the single most important measure governments can take to reverse the plundering of the fish in the ocean. Four years later, I am still waiting for WTO members to do the right thing.

If we were to remove all harmful fisheries subsidies we could have a 12.5% increase in fish biomass, or 35 million metric tonnes of fish by 2050.

Peter Thomson

These negotiations began 20 years ago, at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Doha, and in the intervening decades, the proportion of global fish stocks being overfished has risen from 25% to 34%. Too much time has been wasted, but we can catch up on the harm we’ve done. If we were to remove all harmful fisheries subsidies we could have a 12.5% increase in fish biomass, or 35 million metric tonnes of fish by 2050.

We cannot have a healthy planet without a healthy ocean. And we cannot have a healthy ocean without healthy fish stocks. We now look to the WTO to make a judicious agreement at the Ministerial Conference in Geneva in early December to bring this long era of harmful fisheries subsidies to a responsible conclusion.

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