Ending harmful fishing subsidies would improve ocean health


  • Subsidies paid to the global fishing industry amount to $ 35 billion per year, over 60% of which meets the WTO definition of harmful subsidies.
  • New WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said in her inaugural address that she wanted the WTO to reach an agreement on fisheries subsidies this year.
  • Many organizations play their role in informing and motivating citizens on the subject, such as #StopFundingOverfishing and Friends of Ocean Action.

More than a third of all fish stocks are exploited at unsustainable levels, degrading biodiversity and devastating the future of fisheries and fishermen. Despite this, many governments around the world continue to spend taxpayer dollars to encourage overfishing, through fishing subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and destructive fishing practices.

Attempts to eliminate this “tragedy of the commons” began two decades ago, when it was put on the agenda of the World Trade Organization (WTO). A crucial step in this course came in 2015, when world leaders recognized the damage harmful subsidies were causing to fish stocks and the marine environment, and adopted the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a plan to achieve a future for all. SDG target 14.6 instructed governments to reach an agreement at the WTO to eliminate harmful subsidies by 2020. This task is now overdue.

Why is it so difficult?

I have an answer based on my own experience as European Commissioner for the Navy, a role that I exercised between 2010 and 2014. As part of the introduction of a new common European policy for sustainable fisheries, j have presented a proposal to eliminate all harmful fishing subsidies from the EU budget. The proposal met with strong objections from the fishing industry, represented mainly by owners of large industrial vessels. Their arguments were based mainly on the allegedly unfair competition from the fishing industry outside the EU. In short, the proposal was adopted thanks to the support of many ocean lovers. But even if European funds cannot support overfishing, national budgets always do.

Here, a clarification is in order: it is true that not all subsidies are harmful. If, for example, public money supports more selective gear or greener fishing methods, you can satisfy fishermen and ocean advocates. It is also true that small boats without towing gear can fish more sustainably and support local communities. But it’s also quite true that most public funds, spent through grants, end up encouraging overfishing in coastal waters and on the high seas, ultimately damaging the fishing industry they are supposed to support. .

Subsidies to the global fishing industry amount to approximately $ 35 billion per year, including $ 20 billion in forms that strengthen the capacity of large fishing fleets, such as fuel subsidies and programs. tax exemption, according to the European Parliament’s Committee on Fisheries. The latest OECD Fisheries Review also criticized current subsidy practices and warned that current fisheries policies continue to contribute to overexploitation. Most scientific surveys indicate that China, the EU, the United States, the Republic of Korea, Thailand and Japan are the biggest spenders. Most of these surveys also show that more than 60% of this expenditure meets the WTO definition of harmful subsidies: it increases the fishing capacity of vessels to catch more and more fish, while a large part target fish stocks is below sustainable levels.

Why has the WTO missed its deadline?

Much time has been spent on arguments regarding possible exemptions for developing and least developed countries (for whom, where, when and for how long?), Subsidy exemptions for “scientific fisheries and unclear research ”, and discussions regarding disputed sea areas. In 2020, not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the delay in appointing a new WTO director general (blocked by the Trump administration in the United States) wasted precious months.

The good news is that the WTO now has a strong new leader, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian who took office on March 1, 2021. Dr Okonjo-Iweala said in her inaugural address the post she wants the WTO to reach an agreement on fisheries subsidies this year. It wasted little time and is now ready to host a special WTO ministerial conference on fisheries subsidies on July 15, 2021.

Why did it take so long?

The 164 members of the WTO adopt their decisions by consensus and have different interpretations of their obligations under multilateral trade rules and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Some, like the EU, would like to be able to maintain fuel subsidies and tax breaks to maintain the economic performance of their long-haul and offshore fleets. But others object that it could affect the environmental integrity of the deal.

Everyone agrees that developing and least developed members of the WTO should be entitled to special and differential treatment, but at what cost? Should a WTO member like the People’s Republic of China be considered a developing economy in the context of fishing, even if its fleet captures one-third of the world’s fish production? Wouldn’t that empty the chord of its substance?

And India says it cannot eliminate subsidies from illegal, unreported and unregulated fisheries because it has thousands of small-scale artisanal fishermen that it cannot control. A grace period in accordance with the principle of special and differential treatment is one thing, but an open-ended blank check is quite different – especially when one suspects that India wants to subsidize the construction of its own deep-sea fishing fleet or distant. to compete with China.

Over 80% of all harmful fisheries subsidies go to large industrial fleets, depriving small-scale artisanal fishermen (who make up 90% of the fishing workforce) of access to markets and resources.

Our ocean covers 70% of the world’s surface and represents 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We cannot have a healthy future without a healthy ocean, but it is more vulnerable than ever due to climate change and pollution.

Tackling the serious threats to our ocean means working with leaders from all sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, brings together the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a program with the Indonesian government to reduce plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum is leading a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEOs of Climate Leaders, who have reduced their companies’ emissions by 9%.

Does your organization want to work with the World Economic Forum? Learn more here.

Yes, we can still hope for a satisfactory result and we have good reasons for that. Many organizations around the world are playing their role in informing and motivating citizens on the subject.

A coalition of 180 NGOs is spreading the message #StopFundingOverfishing. The Friends of Ocean Action, hosted by the World Economic Forum, of which I am proud to be a member, consistently keep the elimination of harmful subsidies high on the agenda and plan to bring the matter up again during the discussions. Virtual Ocean Dialogues, a month and a half before the WTO Special Ministerial Conference on July 15.

Let’s continue the effort.

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