A World Trade Organisation deal could deter overfishing – and increase the sustainability and profitability of the supply chain, write Isabel Jarrett and Nikolas Evangelides of The Pew Charitable Trusts
When they meet in Geneva on 30 November, trade ministers from the 164 members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) will try to reach consensus around a globally binding agreement that could reduce fisheries subsidies, one of the key drivers of overfishing.
After two decades of WTO negotiations, members are closer than ever to forging a deal that will help protect the ocean’s ability to provide food, jobs and income to fishing communities across the globe.
Overfishing is arguably the greatest threat to marine biodiversity, and to fishers’ jobs. More than one-third of global stocks are fished at unsustainable levels, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation. In EU waters, some populations are overfished by as much as 87%.
Despite significant strides forward that have seen many stocks recover, the UK is not immune. An audit by the NGO Oceana published in January suggested that in the UK, despite major recent progress, many of the most economically important stocks continue to be fished at unsustainable rates.
Overfishing can create a vicious cycle. Governments step in to support the fishing sector, and boats continue fishing even when market and operating conditions, such as dwindling catches and profits, indicate they shouldn’t. This overfishing, in turn, exacerbates the problem, threatening not only the marine ecosystem, but also livelihoods and the long-term sustainability of the sector.
Governments around the world spend $22bn each year on these capacity-enhancing subsidies, which reduce fishers’ expenses for fuel, gear and vessel construction. Seven political entities – China, Japan, the EU, South Korea, Russia, the United States and Thailand – provide more than two-thirds of these harmful subsidies.
These payments more often than not benefit large, industrial vessels. Ninety percent of the financial support provided by the UK goes to the larger vessels in the fleet, despite the fact that they are the minority of total fishing vessels. UK waters also host an armada of subsidised foreign fleets, which further compete with the UK’s individual fishers.
In 2018, a total of 176 foreign vessels – which received an estimated $105.1m in subsidies from their governments – spent 188.6m kilowatt hours in fishing effort in UK waters in the Indian, Pacific and other oceans, fishing for tuna, toothfish and other species that often compete directly with catches made by bona fide UK vessels. More than 70% of these distant-water vessels were flagged to non-EU countries.
Fortunately, there is a solution. Eliminating all harmful fisheries subsidies could result in an increase of at least 12.5% in global fish biomass by 2050, according to research conducted at the University of California, Santa Barbara and funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts. That’s nearly 35m metric tonnes of fish – almost 90 times the amount of fish that UK vessels landed, or offloaded, in the UK in 2019.
The latest draft of the WTO treaty is structured around the elimination of three pillars of marine subsidies: payments to vessels and operators engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing; payments for fishing on already overfished stocks; and payments for activities that enhance overcapacity and overfishing. Ceasing support to foreign vessels engaged in distant-water fishing is a critical component of the third pillar, and would likely benefit the UK fleet.
Major UK retailers are cheering on WTO members’ efforts to eliminate harmful subsidies. Through the UK-based Global Tuna Alliance – the world’s biggest network of seafood wholesalers and suppliers to the consumer – retailers whose success depends on sustainable fisheries have called for public funds to be redirected towards monitoring, control and enforcement, as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation projects that provide jobs in communities that have been disproportionately affected by overfishing.
An ambitious WTO subsidies deal would not only mean more fish in the sea, but would also help level the playing field for law-abiding fishers around the world, disincentivise unprofitable fishing operations, and combat practices such as IUU fishing.
As consumers in developed, market-driven economies such as the UK’s increasingly demand more sustainable practices in the supply chain, now is the time for trade ministers to reach an agreement that ends harmful fisheries subsidies.
This talk of WTO deals may seem a world away from the day to day realities for most UK fishers. But the actuality is that, on a daily basis, UK fishing vessels are operating on an unfair playing field.
Fish landed by UK vessels is competing in international markets against more heavily subsidised fish, which in turn is supporting levels of overfishing that can directly affect your own catch rates and profitability. A successful WTO outcome will be of great benefit to both the UK fishing industry and the marine environment.
This piece was originally published in Fishing News magazine on December 2, 2021, and on Fishing News’ website on December 9, 2021. Isabel Jarrett and Nikolas Evangelides work on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ project on reducing harmful fisheries subsidies.