An interview on ending harmful fisheries subsidies with Ambassador Peter Thomson, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean and Co-Chair of Friends of Ocean Action.
Members of the World Trade Organization will meet on 12-15 June at the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) in Geneva, Switzerland, and one issue top of the agenda is reaching a deal to end harmful fisheries subsidies that contribute to overfishing. What does the landscape look like? Is there reason for realistic optimism? We spoke with Ambassador Peter Thomson, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean and Co-Chair of Friends of Ocean Action, to get his views.
Q: WHAT ARE THE CHANCES TO SEE A DEAL ON ELIMINATING HARMFUL FISHERIES SUBSIDIES AT MC12 IN JUNE 2022?
Peter Thomson: Since the start of her tenure in March 2021, the Director-General of the WTO, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has consistently expressed optimism about achieving a deal, and I think it fair to say her appointment has re-energized negotiations. We are as close as we have ever been to reaching a deal, with just a handful of elements pending consensus. With the parlous state of world fisheries, I fully expect these elements to be settled before the negotiations conclude. I note that “Fish Decision Week” runs up to 3 June and I have the feeling that everyone is moving in the right direction – scientists are behind a deal being reached and many governments and businesses have raised positive voices. The eyes of all those around the world intent on halting the decline in the ocean’s health, are fixed upon the WTO in Geneva. This focus will be intense from now until the Ministerial Conference (MC12), so I strongly urge members to do the right thing and implement the target of the Sustainable Development Goal for the ocean dedicated to ending harmful fisheries subsidies, SDG14.6 .
Q: WHAT IMPLICATIONS WOULD ANOTHER FAILURE HAVE FOR THE WTO?
PT: After two decades of WTO talks on harmful fisheries subsidies, and seven years after the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, if consensus is not reached at MC12 it would reflect very poorly on the WTO, and more particularly upon the motivations of any country standing in the way of progress. We have often heard the WTO secretariat and WTO members say that the multilateral trade system is key to achieving sustainable development, thus the stakes are high should they fail to meaningfully move on removing harmful fisheries subsidies.
We are talking about subsidies amounting to US$22 billion every year worldwide; public monies that should be spent on sustainable development of coastal communities, rather than enabling industrial fishing fleets to unsustainably deplete the ocean’s resources.
Q: AND FOR THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS?
PT: The Sustainable Development Goals are a comprehensive package, to which we all agreed in 2015. Along with the Paris Climate Agreement, in effect they are our global plan for equitable survival on this planet. The fact that the UN General Assembly called upon the WTO to fulfil the SDG14.6 target of eliminating harmful fisheries subsidies, underlines the urgency of the task at hand for MC12. All parties must understand we cannot cherry-pick the SDGs, for to do so would set a dangerous precedent for all other SDG targets.
Q: AND FOR MARINE BIODIVERSITY?
PT: In the two decades since the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations began, the proportion of global fish stocks being overfished has risen from 25% to over 34%. Scientists have calculated that removing harmful fisheries subsidies could increase fish biomass by 12.5% by 2050. Think of that as 35 million metric tons of fish contributing to the mitigation of hunger and restoration of marine biodiversity. Thus the global impact of removing harmful fisheries subsidies is highly significant, underlining the fact that the time for decisive WTO action has arrived.
Q: IS IT THAT THE WTO JUST PRETENDS BUT DOES NOT REALLY CARE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AS MANY OF ITS CRITICS SAY?
PT: One problem with multilateral trade rules, which require consensus for them to be adopted, is that they are all interlinked – nothing is agreed unless everything is agreed, and of course “horse-trading” has long been a common practice among nations. On the positive side, once rules are adopted at the WTO, they are legally binding. This may be why these talks have been taking so long to conclude, but conclude they must, for while we talk the ocean’s health is measurably in decline. There can be no healthy planet without a healthy ocean, so the MC12’s progress or lack of progress will have existential implications for us all.
Q: WHAT DO YOU SAY IF SOME TELL YOU THAT 22 YEARS OR 24 YEARS (BY THE NEXT WTO MINISTERIAL CONFERENCE IN TWO YEARS) MAKES LITTLE OR NO DIFFERENCE “IN THE WATER”, AND WE CAN WAIT AGAIN?
PT: Of course we can wait again, but at what cost? We have already seen the damage done through our past inaction. Wait some more and all we will see is a compounding of the damage being done to the ocean’s health. If that is the way it happens, let it be clearly seen who is blocking progress, who is blocking the consensus so sorely needed to reverse the decline in the ocean’s health.
I’d like to acknowledge the good works of successive civil society campaigns for the removal of harmful fisheries subsidies, and note how they were revived by the adoption of SDG14.6 in 2015. There is now a #StopFundingOverfishing coalition of more than 180 public interest groups, of which Friends of Ocean Action is a member – all pushing for a meaningful deal to end harmful fisheries subsidies. But I doubt there will be funding for a fresh round of negotiations if the WTO does not deliver this time around.
Twenty years are equivalent to a human generation, and by any measure that is far too long for a negotiation to be perpetuated, especially when it has such a critical impact on the health of the ocean and thereby our own health.
Q: HOW RELEVANT IS IT THAT THE UN OCEAN CONFERENCE TAKES PLACE TWO WEEKS AFTER MC12?
PT: By the time we gather in Lisbon for the opening of the UN Ocean Conference on 27 June, expectations are high that WTO’s MC12 will have delivered on its task of removing harmful fisheries subsidies. WTO is a member-driven organization and its Ministerial Conference is made up of the same governments that will be coming to the UN Ocean Conference two weeks later in Lisbon, the same governments that adopted SDG14 by consensus back in 2015.
Good governance calls for consistency of political will and rightful action, and the world expects MC12 to do the right thing. It goes without saying, that not doing so will have serious implications.
Q: IF THERE IS NO FISHERIES AGREEMENT NEXT MONTH IN GENEVA, WHO WILL BE WINNERS AND WHO WILL BE THE LOSERS?
PT: The vast majority of fisheries subsidies go to large industrial fleets. This is highly unfair to small-scale artisanal fishers, whose access to resources and markets are undermined by large industrial fleets depleting the ocean’s resources. The other great loser is the ocean itself, with existing subsidies making it possible for these industrial fleets to be out at sea chasing diminishing stocks of fish. In the ocean, everything is connected. In the end, nobody wins, fish stocks collapse, and billions of dollars of public funds that could have been spent on developing the sustainable blue economy have been squandered on misguided policy.
Q: LEAVING ASIDE THE COMPLICATION CAUSED BY THE WAR IN UKRAINE, WHAT ARE THE REMAINING ROADBLOCKS?
PT: Among the remaining issues requiring resolution is that of whether and for how long special and differential treatment for developing countries should apply. In my opinion, the most important consideration in this regard is how to best support the interests of the small-scale artisanal fishers of developing countries.
Q: SHOULDN’T THIS BE A NO-BRAINER?
PT: I’m greatly encouraged that the chair of the negotiations, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, has tabled a proposal that can resolve the key issues. I was also interested to see last month that China announced a programme to substitute fisheries fuel subsidies by what they call “ocean stewardship subsidies”. These are the kinds of initiatives we absolutely need to achieve a meaningful outcome.
Less encouraging is the information that the status of subsidies to high seas and distant-water fisheries – especially fuel subsidies and fuel tax rebates that make them artificially profitable – remains unresolved, despite an intense negotiating timetable facilitated by the secretariat and the chair of negotiations.
Q: DO YOU THINK THIS ISSUE CAN BE SORTED IN JUST THE FEW WEEKS WHICH ARE LEFT?
PT: A successful MC12 deal on fisheries subsidies will simultaneously save fish and save face for the WTO. Where there is a will there is a way. So yes, I think the fact that we will all be expecting this to be in the bag in time for the UN Ocean Conference, will provide the necessary prod to consensus.