Global Trade Deal Needed Urgently to Ban Subsidies Threatening Fish Stocks

08 Oct 2019

Max Hall, Public Engagement, Tel.: +41 79 329 3500; Email:

  • Time is running out on a trade deal to end “harmful” fisheries subsidies that contribute to overfishing, as campaigners, international organizations and scientists warn of irreversible ocean damage
  • The public pays an estimated $22 billion a year in these subsidies, which threaten fish stocks, food security, ocean sustainability and fishing livelihoods
  • Conservationists urge 164 governments to reach a deal before 2020 at critical time for World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations
  • Sir David Attenborough, the Friends of Ocean Action, the World Economic Forum and WWF send powerful video message as trade delegates meet at the WTO. Watch at
  • A deal is one of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals, agreed by all UN member states. It is also seen as a “litmus test” for the success of future multilateral trading agreements
  • More information at

Geneva, Tuesday 8 October – Governments must agree a global trade deal by the end of this year to ban harmful fisheries subsidies, or there are risks of collapsing fish stocks, food shortages and losses to fishing livelihoods, warn campaigners.

Reaching a deal now can help ocean recovery, offer significant economic gains, and set a more sustainable path for fish use.

That is the message from Sir David Attenborough, WWF, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, and the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of over 50 ocean leaders run by the World Economic Forum and World Resources Institute.

It comes as the most intense and critical round of negotiations on fisheries subsidies continues at the World Trade Organization (WTO) this month.

Subsidies are government contributions aimed at boosting the potential profitability of fisheries. Some are beneficial and promote fishery resource conservation and management, while others contribute directly or indirectly to overcapacity, overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Public money to the tune of about $22 billion a year – over $2.5 million an hour – currently supports harmful fisheries subsidies.

Negotiations to end the subsidies have been 20 years in the making and are yet to be finalized. The latest round comes amid tensions within the multilateral trading system, with WTO Director-General, Roberto Azevêdo, saying they “represent a critically important litmus test” for future multilateral agreements. He strongly urges countries to step up their efforts to reach a deal through the WTO negotiations.

Over 59 million people work in fisheries and aquaculture and hundreds of millions more rely on seafood as their primary source of protein.

A global trade deal is a vital step in the restoration of life in the ocean to its former abundance and diversity. Over 33% of the world’s fish are harvested at biologically unsustainable levels, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and about one in three fish caught around the world never makes it to the plate. Meanwhile, the demand for protein from the ocean is rising due to population growth.

“Trade rules must now advance environmental needs. It’s time to stop competitively dumping cash in the ocean and align economics with ecosystems,” said Dominic Waughray, Managing Director and Head of the Platform for Global Public Goods at the World Economic Forum.

The current slide towards ocean disaster can be turned around

The 164 governments that make up the membership of the WTO have agreed to negotiate new global rules on fisheries subsidies by the end of this year. The UN says this would be a vital step towards slowing the overexploitation of fish stocks and tackling IUU fishing.

In a powerful video message, produced in collaboration with the Forum and WWF and presented to trade delegates today at the WTO Public Forum in Geneva, Sir David Attenborough outlines an achievable vision for a healthy ocean with fish stocks recovered, monitored wisely, fished sustainably, and feeding many more people than they do now.

But he warns that we are standing in our own way by paying huge sums of public money to keep damaging and destructive fishing activities afloat. It means that government subsidies are keeping fishing boats fishing, even when there are too few fish left for fishing to be profitable.

It is estimated that 85% of governments’ fisheries subsidies benefit large industrial fleets, thereby distorting markets to the detriment of small-scale artisanal fishing companies. Small-scale fisheries employ 90% of all fishers yet account for 30% of the catch in marine fisheries.

A World Bank report, which tallied the income and costs of fisheries, found the global fishing industry landed $164 billion worth of marine fish in 2014, but with labour, capital, and fuel costs and subsidies, global fisheries produced a net loss of $44 billion.

Tackling overcapacity will boost profitability and sustainability

The seafood industry stands to gain $53 billion annually from an increase in marine stocks, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Improvement in global fisheries management can also bring economic gains estimated at $83 billion, according to the World Bank.

Peter Thomson, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on the Ocean, and co-chair of the Friends of Ocean Action, said that human exploitation of the ocean is causing long-term damage and urged countries to be ready to negotiate compromises for the greater good. “Failure is not an option. The billions of dollars wasted on fisheries subsidies should be put to use in building the resilience of coastal communities. The conservation and sustainable use of the ocean’s resources requires WTO members to deliver on the prohibition of harmful fisheries subsidies. The world is watching.”

Leslie Delagran, Senior Fellow, WWF, said “The crisis of depletion affecting fisheries worldwide is one of the defining environmental and social challenges of our time. WTO members have been talking about prohibiting harmful subsidies for fisheries for nearly 20 years. It is now high time for them to take effective action to help secure healthy oceans and sustainable livelihoods for years to come.”

Accept our marketing cookies to access this content.

These cookies are currently disabled in your browser.

Notes to editors

Watch the video

About the Friends of Ocean Action: and @friendsofocean
The latest information on The State of the World’s Fisheries

Read the Forum Agenda at
Become a fan of the Forum on Facebook at
Watch our videos at
Follow the Forum on Twitter via @wef and @davos
Follow our Instagram at
Follow us on LinkedIn at
Learn about the Forum’s impact on
Subscribe to Forum news releases at

The World Economic Forum, committed to improving the state of the world, is the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

All opinions expressed are those of the author. The World Economic Forum Blog is an independent and neutral platform dedicated to generating debate around the key topics that shape global, regional and industry agendas.

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum