The World Trade Organization made history last week when it selected a woman—from Africa, where nearly one-fifth of the world’s population lives—to lead the institution for the first time. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s former finance and foreign minister, started her four-year term as WTO director-general on March 1, taking the reins from Roberto Azevêdo, who resigned in late August.
This historic decision comes at a pivotal moment for the WTO, which was established to promote open trade among nations and can create legally binding rules to regulate subsidies. After failing to reach an agreement in 2020 to end harmful fisheries subsidies, delegates from member countries resumed negotiations in mid-January. It’s the only active discussion involving the full WTO membership, with delegates working to draft text and reach an agreement that could bring lasting change to the global ocean.
Although on the surface the WTO and ocean conservation might seem like strange bedfellows, the Geneva-based organization’s founding document underlined the need to enhance global trade “while allowing for the optimal use of the world’s resources in accordance with the objective of sustainable development, seeking both to protect and preserve the environment.” By prohibiting destructive fishing subsidies, the WTO would demonstrate how global trade rules can be adapted to reflect the realities of the 21st century—and to advance environmental sustainability.
Experts recognize that some fishing subsidies are beneficial and should remain in place. For instance, subsidies can help countries manage their fisheries or protect parts of the ocean that serve as fish breeding grounds.
But governments hand out $22 billion a year in harmful fisheries subsidies, such as those for fuel and vessel construction, which artificially lower the cost of fishing and enable primarily large, industrial fishers to travel farther, stay at sea longer, and take in more fish than they could normally afford to do if they paid market prices for equipment and fuel. This fiscally irresponsible subsidization leads to fleets catching more fish than is sustainable, thus depleting fish populations that people around the world depend upon.
In 2015, 193 nations adopted the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, a blueprint for building a better world. Goal 14 calls for countries to conserve and responsibly use marine resources for sustainable development—with U.N. member governments agreeing to effectively regulate fisheries, eliminate illegal fishing, and, by the end of 2020, prohibit subsidies that encourage overfishing and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.
Because the UN’s 2020 deadline was missed, this agreement is now overdue, and overfishing continues to hurt coastal communities that rely on robust ocean ecosystems.
Cutting down on damaging subsidies would allow countries to redirect public funds toward policies that improve the health of fisheries to the benefit of people and economies around the globe. And a recent peer-reviewed scientific model based on current fishing data and created by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara shows that eliminating all harmful fisheries subsidies could result in an increase of 12.5% in global fish biomass by 2050, which translates into nearly 35 million metric tons. That would mean a huge amount of fish back in the sea—equivalent to almost three times the amount of fish that the population of Africa consumes annually.
Steering the organization to a subsidies agreement would be a way for Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to start her term off strong—and signal to the global community that she intends to lead the organization to create positive change in the world. WTO members should leverage the momentum of today’s historic announcement to seal the deal as soon as possible on the agreement—a significant win not only for the new director-general, but for the global ocean and communities and economies the world over.
Isabel Jarrett manages The Pew Charitable Trusts’ reducing harmful fisheries subsidies project.
This piece was originally published in Mongabay on March 10, 2021.