Missed deadline to end harmful subsidies will drive more overfishing: leaders must urgently push for action early in 2021, says UN ocean envoy

14 December 2020: Negotiators at the World Trade Organization have signalled that in spite of best endeavours, they will be not be able to meet the 2020 deadline for ending harmful fisheries subsidies that drive overfishing.

The call to eliminate these harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020 was made by all Heads of State and Government in the Sustainable Development Goal for the ocean, SDG14, and most recently was noted as a priority action by the 14 serving Heads of State and Government of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy.

After almost two decades of talks, members of the World Trade Organization have postponed to 2021 the conclusion of negotiations aimed at eliminating fisheries subsidies that contribute to overfishing, overcapacity, and illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. A new plan will be proposed soon to continue negotiations in the coming months.

“It is patently clear people around the world are very disappointed that harmful fisheries subsidies continue to exist. These subsidies have been identified as one of the chief causes of the ecosystem collapses we’re observing in the ocean. There is no doubt the subsidizing of industrial fleets has led to the overcapacity that is depleting the world’s fish stocks, and this travesty must be brought to an end. I remain confident the subsidies negotiators at the World Trade Organization will soon arrive at a consensus agreement for the benefit of people and planet,” said Ambassador Peter Thomson, UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean and Co-Chair of Friends of Ocean Action.

According to UN Food and Agriculture Organization statistics, the state of the world’s fish stocks continues to experience steady decline. The percentage of fish stocks that are within biologically sustainable levels dropped to 65.8% in 2017, compared to 90% in 1990 – during which time the WTO has continued to postpone action to control fisheries subsidies and end the use of public funds that encourage overfishing and the overcapacity of industrial fishing fleets. The FAO has also shown that 35% of the global seafood harvest from fisheries and aquaculture encouraged by subsidies is either lost or wasted, further highlighting the urgent need for subsidy reform.

“It is widely considered that harmful fisheries subsidies jeopardize the livelihoods and food security of small-scale coastal fishing communities around the world. The industrial fleets receiving these subsidies are as a result empowered to fish the far corners of the world, thereby depleting the fishing grounds of small-scale fishers. We owe it to them and to nature to end these harmful subsidies,” said Thomson. It is estimated that 80-85% of all fisheries subsidies are benefiting large industrial fleets, thus adversely affecting small-scale fishers’ access to resources and markets.

Friends of Ocean Action will continue to support the WTO’s effort to end harmful fisheries subsidies urgently in 2021. In a letter addressed to Ambassador David Walker, Chair of the WTO General Council, this week, Ambassador Thomson said, “Sadly, WTO negotiations to end harmful fisheries subsidies are not yet over. While acknowledging the huge effort invested by negotiators in 2020, under the able chairmanship of Ambassador Santiago Wills, I call for a speedy delivery in 2021 of the universally agreed target of SDG14.6 to end these subsidies. Regardless of the delay, I will continue to actively encourage all friends of a healthy ocean to support implementation of this critically important ecological, social and economic target.”

Sources at the WTO negotiations say the delay has been due to entrenched positions and disagreements on the extent to which special and differential treatment for developing countries should be recognized and for how long; and to disagreements on whether fuel tax rebates should be considered overcapacity-enhancing subsidies; as well as complications stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Media contact

Notes to editors

  • Friends of Ocean Action is a unique group of over 55 global leaders from business, international organizations, civil society, science and academia who are fast-tracking scalable solutions to the most pressing challenges facing the ocean. It is hosted by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with the World Resources Institute. Visit friendsofoceanaction.org for more information of follow @FriendsofOcean on Twitter.
  • The 14 world leaders of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy highlight the need to “prohibit harmful fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity, overfishing, and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing” in their new action agenda released on 2 December 2020: https://oceanpanel.org/
  • The four Directors General in office during the ongoing negotiations: Mike Moore (New Zealand), Supachai Panitchpakdi (Thailand), Pascal Lamy (France), Roberto Azevêdo (Brazil); the position is currently vacant
  • The WTO Ministerial Conferences: Seattle 1999, Doha 2001, Cancun 2003, Hong Kong 2005, Geneva 2009, Geneva 2011, Bali 2013, Nairobi 2015, Buenos Aires 2017
  • In SDG 14.6, world leaders committed to: “By 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing, and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiation.”
  • FAO report: The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture: http://www.fao.org/state-of-fisheries-aquaculture