> Members of the World Trade Organization will meet this week in Geneva for the WTO’s twelfth Ministerial Conference and are expected to gavel a deal to end harmful fisheries subsidies, after 21 years of negotiations.
> Ending these perverse subsidies that boost overfishing (a key target in the Sustainable Development Goal for the ocean, SDG14), is critical to enabling sustainable global fisheries, supporting small-scale fishers, and maintaining the health of fish stocks and the wider marine ecosystem.
> Sticking points remain, but Friends of Ocean Action and others are hopeful that these can be ironed out and urging for a deal to be finally concluded this week.
10 June 2022, Geneva, Switzerland - - The World Trade Organization (WTO)’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) is taking place on 12-15 June 2022 in Geneva, Switzerland, after two years of postponement due to the Covid-19 pandemic. High on the priority list at MC12 is concluding a deal to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies, which would represent a major step to protect marine life and the security of countless jobs and livelihoods in small-scale fisheries worldwide. Harmful fisheries subsidies are those that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity as well as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
The global community committed to end harmful fisheries subsidies also as part of the Sustainable Development Goal for the ocean, SDG14 Target 6, whereby in 2015 the UN General Assembly agreed to “by 2020, 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 […].” The WTO was mandated to draft and negotiate the agreement, “recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing countries should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries negotiation”.
The WTO’s Ministerial Conference falls just two weeks before the High-Level UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon on 27 June-1 July 2022, when countries’ progress in achieving the targets of SDG14 will be in the global spotlight. The trade body must deliver on its mandate to put an end to fisheries subsidies that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity, after more than 20 years of negotiations. It is hoped a deal will be gavelled at MC12.
But to date, less than 48 hours before MC12 begins, WTO members have continued to fail to reach consensus on the details of the agreement they were mandated to reach by 2020.
“Concluding these negotiations once and for all is critical for the health and survival of fisheries, fishers and fish – and also for the standing of the WTO as a credible player in the global multilateral system. As fish populations decline, these public funds allow vessels to continue fishing when and where it would otherwise not be economically viable. This is environmental, social and economic madness: we are paying to make ourselves poorer in the long term, akin to hiring a burglar to rob your own house,” said Peter Thomson, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean and Co-Chair of Friends of Ocean Action.
Momentum towards reaching agreement had built up at the end of 2021 before MC12 was indefinitely postponed at the end of November 2021, only 48 hours before the meeting was meant to commence, due to Covid-19 complications. The successive postponements of MC12 since the pandemic began in 2020 have been an enormous source of frustration and concern for the #StopFundingOverfishing coalition of more than 180 public interest groups, of which Friends of Ocean Action is a member.
The appointment in 2021 of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as WTO Director General re-energized the talks, and throughout 2021 and 2022 she has said many times publicly that fisheries subsidies discipline is high on her priority list. Friends of Ocean Action took part in the recent handover of a Stop Funding Overfishing statement to Dr. Ngozi, encouraging continued efforts to conclude a deal. The group also unveiled a melting ice fish sculpture on World Ocean Day in the presence of WTO leaders, symbolizing the urgency to conclude a deal.
Dr. Ngozi is expected to attend the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon to report on MC12 outcomes.
Fisheries subsidies contributing to overfishing and overcapacity are estimated to represent some USD$22 billion worldwide each year. This taxpayers’ money would be far better used to bolster ocean protection, build sustainability measures and support small-scale fishers in pursuit of the different targets of SDG14. According to a review published in 2019 by the Organization on Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) of all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, SDG14 (also known as “Life Below Water”) was the least supported by Overseas Development Assistance programmes and philanthropy. This finding also emerges in a new World Economic Forum white paper, SDG14 Financing Landscape Scan: Tracking funds to realize sustainable outcomes for the ocean.
"We depend on the ocean for our ability to live and thrive, and ambitious ocean action at the global scale is urgent. This year offers critical opportunities to advance ocean health, including the WTO’s Twelfth Ministerial Conference on 12-15 June. I urge members to reach consensus on a deal as top priority – for the sake of people and the planet alike,” said Isabella Lövin, Former Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden and Co-Chair, Friends of Ocean Action.
According to research by the University of British Columbia, some 80-90% of all fisheries subsidies are benefiting large industrial fleets which is unfair to artisanal fishers. Small-scale artisanal fishers suffer from subsidized large industrial fleets stealing the fish from them, and livelihoods are at risk in coastal communities around the world. Taxpayers’ money used in harmful fisheries subsidies could instead be channelled in support of all SDG14 targets: the sustainability of fisheries including securing access to resources and markets to small-scale fishers, the protection and restoration of marine ecosystems, the elimination of marine pollution, and the designation and management of coastal and marine protected areas.
WTO fisheries negotiations have been chaired in the last three years by Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, who is working tirelessly to reconcile differences among WTO members to reach the consensus which is required under WTO rules for an agreement to pass.
Among the remaining roadblocks there are disagreements on how and for how long special and differential treatment to developing countries should apply, and how small-scale artisanal fishers should be considered in that context. It is hoped, but remains to be seen, that those few remaining countries will stop standing in the way of a compromise on this issue, in the interest of their own small-scale fishing communities and in defence of the integrity of the consistent package formed by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
To address this issue, in his latest draft Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies, Ambassador Wills has proposed that there be no exemption for WTO members whose annual share of the global volume of marine capture production is above a specific amount, to be agreed based on the most recently published UN Food and Agriculture Organization data.
The status of subsidies to high seas and distant-water fisheries – especially fuel subsidies and tax rebates that make them artificially profitable – also remains unresolved, despite an intense negotiating timetable facilitated by an able secretariat and chair. Since the end of February 2022, the war in Ukraine, which stresses the energy markets in Europe and elsewhere, is also adding pressure to the fisheries subsidies negotiations because WTO members need to manage the potential social unrest caused by increase in fuel prices. With this in mind, some governments have also increased tax rebates on fuel subsidies in the agriculture and fisheries sectors.
If adopted, the draft WTO Agreement on fisheries subsidies under its current form would establish a permanent WTO committee on fisheries that would meet at least twice a year. It is possible that WTO members might propose that deliberation on some of the outstanding issues may be taken up later within that committee, to avoid further delays in the adoption of the framework agreement.
Media contact: Gemma Parkes, Communications Lead, Friends of Ocean Action: email@example.com, +41 79 305 2977
 WTO draft Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies, 24 November 2021, Footnote 12. Document WT/MIN(21)/W/5