Global Deal Will Help Reduce Overfishing and Improve Ocean Health

World Trade Organization agrees to end many subsidies that help industrial fleets fish unsustainably

Navigate to:

Global Deal Will Help Reduce Overfishing and Improve Ocean Health
WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
World Trade Organization (WTO) Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Timur Suleimenov, deputy chief of staff for Kazakhstan's president, close the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference on 17 June 2022 in Geneva, Switzerland, where WTO members adopted an historic agreement to curb fisheries subsidies.
WTO Jay Louvion

When the World Trade Organization’s (WTO’s) 12th Ministerial Conference closed at dawn on 17 June 2022, the 164-member intergovernmental body had finally adopted a fisheries subsidies agreement after 21 years of on-and-off discussions and negotiations.

The WTO’s Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies is a historic step towards tackling one of the key drivers of overfishing on the world’s ocean harmful subsidies nations pay to commercial fishing operators to help keep their businesses profitable.

One-third of fish stocks worldwide are exploited beyond sustainable levels, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The $22 billion a year in government subsidies are helping drive this overfishing; the funds go primarily to industrial fishing fleets to artificially lower fuel and vessel construction costs. These subsidies allow large vessels to catch more fish than is sustainable by enabling fishing farther out to sea and for longer periods, essentially increasing each vessel’s capacity. Many of these industrial fleets would not be profitable without government assistance.

Under the new WTO agreement, countries will need to consider the current state of fish stocks when granting subsidies—a provision that should help curtail overfishing, improve ocean health and protect livelihoods in coastal communities. This deal, the first multilateral agreement reached by the WTO that links trade and the environment, creates a global, legally binding framework that limits subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and fishing of overfished stocks, as well as subsidies to vessels fishing on the unregulated high seas. Going forward, 109 members must ratify the agreement for it to take effect.

The agreement also includes measures that will enhance transparency and accountability related to how governments support their fishing sector. For the first time, 164 governments around the world will be obliged to follow the same rules and consider the sustainability of their resources when designing fisheries subsidy programs.

In 2001, recognizing that some fisheries subsidies were harming the global ocean, the U.N. started discussions to tackle these payments. In 2015, the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals tasked the WTO with reaching an agreement to prohibit certain forms of harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020. Although WTO members missed that deadline and faced delays in negotiations due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other global crises, they persisted and ultimately struck the deal adopted in June.

As part of the agreement, trade ministers also committed to continuing negotiations on some outstanding issues related to overfishing and overcapacity—which is a fleet’s ability to harvest more fish than is sustainable. Future negotiations, which are scheduled to take place this fall, will focus on how best to help developing countries meet the requirements of the agreement. 

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, left, speaks with World Wildlife Fund International Director-General Marco Lambertini and Reyna Gilbert, principal associate at Pew, at a World Ocean Day 2022 event in Geneva, Switzerland, urging WTO members to end harmful fisheries subsidies.
Stop Funding Overfishing

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ reducing harmful fisheries subsidies team has supported WTO members in their efforts to comply with the mandate for negotiation set during the 11th Ministerial Conference in 2017, when members were tasked with securing an agreement to eliminate subsidies for IUU fishing and to prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing. For example, to ensure that policymakers had the most up-to-date research on the topic, Pew facilitated groundbreaking research, including a global estimate of what governments spend on harmful fisheries subsidies each year, a bioeconomic model that estimates how much fish populations could rebound if all harmful subsidies were removed, and an interactive tool that visualizes the magnitude—and the spatial distribution—of subsidies that prop up distant-water fishing.

Santiago Wills
Santiago Wills, ambassador and permanent representative of Colombia to the WTO, speaks with media at the the World Ocean Day 2022even in Geneva. Wills chaired the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations and helped members navigate the way to reach consensus on the final agreement.
Stop Funding Overfishing

Another important element of Pew’s work was amplifying voices from stakeholders in support of an agreement to curb harmful fisheries subsidies. Since 2020, the Stop Funding Overfishing coalition, compromised of 182 non-governmental organizations around the world, including Pew, repeatedly called upon world leaders to deliver on the mandate of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal.

WTO members must now press on to ratify, implement and strengthen the new agreement—efforts in which Pew will continue to engage. But this is also an appropriate time to celebrate the June deal, which is a significant step in the fight against overfishing.

Ernesto Fernández Monge works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ reducing harmful fisheries subsidies project, and Megan Jungwiwattanaporn works on cross-campaign efforts within Pew’s conservation work.

National Homeownership Month

Fisherman
Fisherman
Press Releases & Statements

WTO Agrees to Curb Harmful Fisheries Subsidies

Quick View
Press Releases & Statements

The Pew Charitable Trusts today said it was pleased that World Trade Organization members reached a binding agreement to curb some harmful fisheries subsidies, an achievement that will help curtail overfishing and begin to improve the global ocean’s health.

Sardine school
Sardine school
Fact Sheet

世贸组织如何拯救鱼类的未来

Quick View
Fact Sheet

在世界贸易组织 (WTO) 就遏制政府向其渔业部门发放有害渔业补贴的提议进行谈判之际,皮尤慈善信托基金会 (The Pew Charitable Trusts) 和一些权威科学家共同开发了一个建模工具,以分析这些提议的潜在效果。

fishing boat
fishing illustration
Article

研究显示,取消有害补贴可增加海洋中的鱼类种群数量

Quick View
Article

过度捕捞是全球海洋生态健康面临的最大威胁之一。联合国粮食及农业组织 (FAO) 的估计数据表明,全球 34% 的鱼类种群的开发捕捞程度均超出了生物可持续水平。

Composite image of modern city network communication concept

Learn the Basics of Broadband from Our Limited Series

Sign up for our four-week email course on Broadband Basics

Quick View

How does broadband internet reach our homes, phones, and tablets? What kind of infrastructure connects us all together? What are the major barriers to broadband access for American communities?

What Is Antibiotic Resistance—and How Can We Fight It?

Sign up for our four-week email series The Race Against Resistance.

Quick View

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs,” are a major threat to modern medicine. But how does resistance work, and what can we do to slow the spread? Read personal stories, expert accounts, and more for the answers to those questions in our four-week email series: Slowing Superbugs.