Ocean

Here’s how China and Japan are achieving a step-change in sustainable fisheries

Harmful fisheries subsidies: fish for sale/display

The WTO’s Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies was adopted by consensus in June 2022. Image: WEF/iStockphoto

Wang Songlin
Friends of Ocean Action, Founder and President, Qingdao Marine Conservation Society
Wakao Hanaoka
Friends of Ocean Action, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Seafood Legacy Co., Ltd.
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  • Subsidies paid to the global fishing industry amount to $35 billion per year, of which more than 60% contribute to overfishing.
  • Yet only 40 countries, including China and Japan, have ratified WTO’s Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies; another 69 are needed for it to enter force.
  • Japan and China can help turn the tide in efforts to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies and replace them with positive public investment.

So-called “harmful fisheries” subsidies have long been a driver of overfishing and destructive fishing practices around the world. In recent years, global fishing subsidies have amounted to upwards of $35 billion annually, 60% of which have been deemed harmful.

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Research shows that harmful fisheries subsidies have global impacts. One study found that up to 37% of all harmful subsidies support fishing in foreign waters or the high seas. This in turn has negative knock-on effects for marine biodiversity, fair access for smaller scale fishers, and food security in coastal fishing communities – and a weighty impact on the achievement or otherwise of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goal for the ocean, SDG14, unanimously agreed by all UN parties along with the other SDGs in 2015.

The World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies, which was adopted by consensus in June 2022, sets multilateral rules aimed at protecting fish stocks by ending harmful fisheries subsidies in line with the SDG14 target 6. The deal prohibits subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, as well as the fishing of depleted or unmanaged fish stocks. The agreement also aims to address harmful practices like the reflagging of fishing vessels, and to introduce new transparency rules.

For this long-negotiated deal to enter into force, however, at least two-thirds of WTO members need to confirm formal acceptance through their national governments. At time of writing, of the minimum requirement of 109 countries, 40 had so far done so – including both China (on June 27, 2023) and Japan (on July 4, 2023).

Breaking fisheries-subsidy dependency

Japan is one of the top five largest fisheries subsidizing nations in the world. While the catch volume in Japan has decreased to as little as a third of its one-time peak, many stakeholders in the industry have remained highly dependent on those national fisheries subsidies.

During the past 10 years, the Japanese fisheries industry and government alike have made multi-level internal adjustments on restraining themselves from continuing the thin veneer of life-prolonging measures to collaboratively working towards ensuring essential environmental sustainability and social responsibility.

As a result, the implementation of Japan’s New Fisheries Law, which was majorly revised for the first time in 70 years, was started in 2020, and the implementation of the Domestic Trade of Specific Marine Animals and Plants Act, which was the first governmental measure in Japan to prevent seafood sourced by IUU fishing from entering its domestic market, was started in 2022.

Formally accepting the WTO agreement on fisheries subsidies this time is another strong message to the global community of Japan’s redirecting of its national policies and its commitment to sustainability in fisheries and ocean use.

China, meanwhile, has been one of the world’s largest fishing countries for three decades, currently contributing to 15-19% of global marine capture fisheries landings. This high level of wild-capture production has created significant environmental costs: the four seas around China (the Bohai, Yellow, East China and South China Seas) are among the world’s most heavily overfished, with indiscriminate and intense harvests leading to profound trophic cascades. This domino effect through the marine food chain has led to significant loss of marine biodiversity.

China’s harmful fisheries subsidies have been a key enabling condition of this decline, driving Chinese fishing capacity far beyond the line of ecological sustainability in seeking economic profitability.

Encouragingly, though, in the last decade, China has been continuously strengthening its commitment to move the nation onto a more sustainable path in its fisheries. It pledged, for example, to reduce fuel subsidies for the domestic fishing fleet by 60% between 2014 and 2019, including an intention to cap the distant water fishing fleet at 3,000 vessels by the end of 2020. Alongside its participation in the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations, China has also signalled its intention to ratify the Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA) to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing through strict controls of seafood catch that enters ports.

Beyond these steps, there is rising interest across China in the recovery of populations of marine megafauna. A long list of whales, dolphins and all sea turtles were classified as National Class I or II Protected Species in 2020, all of which are victims of overfishing and IUU fishing. In 2021, meanwhile, new Management Measures of funds for Fisheries Development Subsidies were released, aiming to drive fisheries towards high-quality and more sustainable development.

These new measures indicated that fuel subsidies for domestic fisheries would be replaced with subsidies for activities such as marine ranching, underpinned by the large-scale development of artificial reefs and stock enhancement. They also promise fishing and aquaculture equipment modernization and infrastructure construction, fisheries resources surveying and monitoring, and crucially, compliance with international treaties.

Approval of the WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies by Japan and China, as two of the world’s largest fishing and seafood trade and consumption countries, represents a major milestone in rebuilding the balance and the harmony between fishing communities and the ocean around the world. Once two-thirds of WTO’s 164 members formally sign on, the Agreement will become operational, but it can only reach its full potential to eliminate harmful fishing subsidies and to safeguard the ocean, food security and livelihoods if an effective and transparent enforcement mechanism is adopted by all WTO members.

Replacing subsidies with positive public investment

For leading fishing and seafood trade and consumption countries like Japan and China, a core element of this essential opportunity to influence meaningful change is to encourage more definitive action to eliminate negative subsidies, and importantly to recommend replacing those current subsidies with positive public investment.

For instance, more science-based action must be taken to assess whether fisheries relevant to the WTO Agreement are targeting stocks that are overfished, sustainably fished or underfished; fleet capacity in the relevant fisheries and landing data by species or species groups will need to be released; names and identification of vessels benefiting from subsidies will need to be disclosed; conservation and management measures for stocks and their critical habitats will need to be beefed up and their effectiveness evaluated and published in a more time-bound manner.

It is critically important to ensure that harmful subsidies are not repurposed to support activities ostensibly described as sustainability measures, but which actually could undermine significant fisheries management reform. For example, investing in large-scale marine ranching based on stock enhancement and artificial reefs deserves stronger scientific monitoring and research to justify its effectiveness.

Replacing fuel subsidies with investment in equipment modernization or fishing infrastructure could lead to increased capacity and exploitation – if not coupled with modernized monitoring, control and surveillance measures. Furthermore, both the past fisheries subsidies portfolio and most of the proposed greener alternatives were developed in favour of large industrial enterprises, while overlooking small-scale fishers, making them an increasingly marginalized social group. Some part of the harmful subsidies should be reinvested in small-scale fishing communities who seek a green and just transition to a more sustainable future.

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Together, Japan and China share the East China Sea and have many shared fish stocks. More active exchange of domestic fisheries science and management and conservation measures will therefore benefit both countries. Japan may serve as a role model regarding how to get traditional small-scale fishing communities organized and engaged for the purpose of enhancing both inshore ecosystem health and social equity. Japan and China can actively exchange information and ideas around fisheries science as well as sustainable management and conservation measures of distant water fisheries in oceanic waters within regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) and beyond.

Global enforcement and guidance

As leading global seafood trade and consumption countries, Japan and China can together help drive global enforcement of the WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies. They can also play a significant role in guiding the global community towards more sustainable consumption patterns, by increasingly saying no to seafood products that have come to market through harmful subsidies that are prohibited by the WTO Agreement.

By working together, we can eliminate the harmful fisheries subsidies that are so detrimental to the health of our ocean – and to the wellbeing of fish, fishers and fisheries alike, in China and Japan as well as all around our shared blue planet.

The Friends of Ocean Action are a community of diverse global leaders committed to fast-tracking solutions for ocean health, hosted by the Ocean Action Agenda at the World Economic Forum.

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