WTO must ban harmful fisheries subsidies, urge nearly 300 scientists

Ahead of the World Trade Organization's (WTO) 12th Ministerial Conference, the topmost decision-making body of the WTO, scientists around the world sign a letter urging the WTO to end harmful subsidies that incentivize overfishing. The letter was signed by nearly 300 scientists spanning 46 countries, including members of Friends of Ocean Action, Diva Amon, Founder and Director of SpeSeas and Douglas McCauley, Professor at University of California Santa Barbara and Director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative.

Here is the full text of the open letter published in Science on Friday 29 October:

"Sustainably managed wild fisheries sup­port food and nutritional security, liveli­hoods, and cultures. Harmful fisheries subsidies—government payments that incentivize overcapacity and lead to over­fishing—undermine these benefits yet are increasing globally. World Trade Organization (WTO) members have a unique opportunity at their ministerial meeting in November to reach an agree­ment that eliminates harmful subsidies. We—a group of scientists spanning 46 countries and 6 continents—urge the WTO to make this commitment.

To curb overfishing, biodiversity deg­radation and loss, and CO2 emissions, and to safeguard food and livelihoods, WTO members must prohibit fisheries subsidies that cause harm, such as those that lower the cost of fuel and vessel construction and those that provide price support to keep market prices artificially high. Subsidies to distant-water fish­ing fleets must be eliminated to prevent overfishing on the high seas and in waters under national jurisdiction. Such subsi­dies threaten low-income countries that rely on fish for food sovereignty. Exceptions to the rules—known as special and differential treatment—should be considered for small-scale fishers that use low-impact gears or that fish for subsis­tence, but only if decoupled from incentiv­izing overfishing.

An effective agreement must eliminate subsidies for fuel, distant-water and destructive fishing fleets, and ille­gal and unregulated vessels in line with the aims of Sustainable Development Goal 14.6. To ensure accountability, it should also support low-income countries’ efforts to meet their commitments and transition to sustainable management. Finally, the agreement should require transparent data documentation and enforcement measures.

We call on the heads of state of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement—who have already committed to eliminating harmful subsidies—as well as other trade blocs and individual countries, to declare their support now for an agreement that enshrines these recommendations. WTO members must harness their politi­cal mandate to protect the health of the ocean and the well-being of society."

On publication of the open letter in Science, one signatory and member of Friends of Ocean Action, Dr. Diva Amon, Founder of SpeSeas, said: “Eliminating harmful fisheries subsidies through the World Trade Organization is a key tool, together with CBD COP15 and UNFCCC COP26, towards the effective stewardship of the ocean and its biodiversity. Now, more than ever, we need scientific evidence to inform our actions”.

Another signatory and member of Friends of Ocean Action, Professor Doug McCauley, Director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative and Professor at UC Santa Barbara, said: “ All eyes in the ocean science community are on the World Trade Organization. This could be one of the most consequential decisions made for the ocean this century. Eliminating harmful fisheries subsidies would be a win for fishers, climate, nature, profits and environmental justice”.

Read the letter in the Science journal here.

Media contact:

Gemma Parkes, Communications Lead, Friends of Ocean Action, gemma.parkes@weforum.org