Ending Harmful Fisheries Subsidies Could Reverse Decline in Fish Stocks

Urgency grows for WTO deal that would boost ocean health, help ensure sustainable fishing

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Ending Harmful Fisheries Subsidies Could Reverse Decline in Fish Stocks
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Healthy fisheries are critical to a healthy ocean but today many fish stocks are in decline due to a number of threats, including overfishing. One approach to curb overfishing is to reduce harmful fishing subsidies—payments from governments to the industry to keep boats on the water even when doing so doesn’t make economic or fisheries management sense. Although not all subsidies are harmful, World Trade Organization (WTO) member countries now have a small window of opportunity to do something about those that are, by agreeing to binding WTO rules.

The Pew Charitable Trusts recently launched a project that aims to improve understanding among WTO members of the effects of these subsidies and to identify paths toward reform. Harmful subsidies lead to too many boats on the water and other unsustainable practices, threatening the livelihoods of coastal communities and global food security.

Fisheries subsidies, including the elimination of those that are harmful to fish stocks, was the topic of a recent event co-hosted by Pew and the Permanent Mission of Chile to the WTO on Sept. 25 at WTO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland; the event was timed to coincide with the kick-off of fall fisheries subsidies negotiations among WTO members.

During a panel discussion, moderator Eduardo Gálvez, ambassador and permanent representative of Chile to the WTO, told the audience that the negotiations offered a chance to restore faith in the organization’s ability to achieve change. Panelist Ussif Rashid Sumaila, Ph.D., professor and director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre, shared results from multiple studies that show how harmful subsidies are driving unprofitable and unsustainable fishing activity, and detrimentally affecting livelihoods. The other panelist, Alejandro Jara, international trade lawyer and former deputy director-general of the WTO, said members must reach an agreement on subsidies. “It’s not a matter of waiting for the right moment and for the political stars to align,” Jara said. “The time [to negotiate] is now.”

At a ministerial conference in Buenos Aires last December, WTO members declared their intent to negotiate and adopt an agreement on fisheries subsidies by the end of 2019—a move that would be in line with United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, which covers conservation of the ocean and marine resources, including by eliminating certain forms of subsidies that contribute to overcapacity, overfishing and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing by 2020.

There is growing urgency among world leaders to meet the SDGs, and this month trade ministers from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the European Union, Japan, Kenya, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, and Switzerland met in Ottawa and reaffirmed their commitment to ending harmful subsidies.

With momentum building, Pew will support WTO members over the next 13 months to secure a robust agreement by the agreed-upon WTO deadline. Pew is funding the continuation of Sumaila’s ground-breaking research to estimate fisheries subsidies around the world by type, category, amount, and how much each contributes to fishing capacity. Pew is also funding research led by Christopher Costello, Ph.D., professor of natural resource economics at the University of California Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, to model the likely effects of proposed reform measures. The study will illustrate the impact subsidies reform could have on global fisheries.

WTO members have fleeting opportunity to leave a lasting and positive imprint on our ocean and all who depend on healthy fisheries. As Jara said, the time to end harmful subsidies is now.

Isabel Jarrett manages The Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to reduce harmful fisheries subsidies.

Rashid Sumaila
Rashid Sumaila

Scientist Sees Harmful Fisheries Subsidies Taking Toll on Global Fish Stocks

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As governments prepare for critical World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings on fisheries subsidies in Geneva from July 23 to 25, Ussif Rashid Sumaila, a 2008 Pew marine fellow and an author of that study, offers critical perspective.