Sustainable Fisheries Versus Harmful Subsidies: Let’s End the War of Attrition

Hopes were raised for ending harmful fishing subsidies when WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala called for a special ministerial meeting on the topic. In the one month remaining, the Chair of the WTO Negotiating Group on Rules is doing his best to reconcile the strong positions held by different protagonists. The Director-General recognizes that concluding these negotiations is a top priority for fisheries as well as the WTO system.

There has been a lot of expectation recently at the headquarters of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva and in the capitals of its 164 members that something may finally be happening to redirect or remove harmful fisheries subsidies. Hopes were raised when WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala called for a special ministerial meeting to be held on 15 July 2021 to reach agreement to fulfil the trade body’s mandate to eliminate fisheries subsidies that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity.

20 years and six WTO ministerial conferences later, the world is still waiting, fish stocks have continued to shrink, and the ocean is in crisis.

For 22 years I have been watching WTO members discuss what to do about harmful fisheries subsidies. I was at the WTO ministerial conference held in Seattle, US in 1999, where governments discussed whether they should pick up this political hot potato. Two years later, in 2001, I was in Doha, Qatar when the WTO ministerial conference agreed to include this issue on its agenda. But 20 years and six WTO ministerial conferences later, the world is still waiting, fish stocks have continued to shrink and the ocean is in crisis.

Harmful fisheries subsidies are considered a main driver of overfishing. According to a 2018 figure from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), 33% of the world’s fish populations were overfished, 60% were being fished to their sustainable limit, and there was a margin for growth in catches of only 7% of the entire world’s fish populations (these are what they call “underfished” stocks, apparently with little sense of irony). Economists estimate that harmful fisheries subsidies amount to over USD 22 billion worldwide annually, and their extensive use shows that some fisheries in the high seas (the area beyond the 200-mile national jurisdiction) or far away from fishing vessels’ home ports (the so-called long distance fleets benefiting from access agreements in the jurisdictional waters of third countries) would not be economically viable in the absence of government support, given the high fuel costs of sailing long distances.

I was also in New York in 2015 when, as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN General Assembly called on the WTO to complete fisheries subsidies negotiations by 2020 (SDG target 14.6). The SDGs – agreed unanimously by all UN Member States – are at the center of the UN’s  2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, so the fact that they call for eliminating harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020, not 2030, was seen as a powerful sign of urgency.

It seemed that we were getting there at long last. So together with the French NGO Bloom, in the run-up to and at the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference held in Buenos Aires, Argentina in December 2017, I ran a campaign called The Low Hanging Fish, analogous to “low hanging fruit” – an expression used in diplomacy when an issue is ripe for decision-making. But because the WTO can only adopt decisions by a consensus of its 164 members, it failed again in Buenos Aires. There was always someone to find an excuse to break ranks. The trade body’s inability to implement the mandate it was given by Heads of State and Government at the UN General Assembly two years earlier became untenable, so in Buenos Aires it promised to get things right at the next ministerial meeting.

For a variety of reasons, including the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been no WTO ministerial meeting since 2017. Now is the time, at the meeting being convened by Dr. Ngozi on 15 July. In the one month remaining, the Chair of the WTO Negotiating Group on Rules, Ambassador Santiago Wills from Colombia, is doing his best to reconcile the strong positions held by different protagonists – India, the EU, China, the US, New Zealand, South Africa, and the group of small island developing States (SIDS), to only name a few.

On one side, some argue that fisheries subsidies should disappear altogether because they perpetuate unsustainable fishing operations which would otherwise not be economically viable due to shrinking fish stocks. On the other side, some WTO members are carefully maneuvering in the hope that at least some of their own fisheries subsidies remain under the WTO radar; for example, fisheries fuel subsidies in the EU. And still others are using the principle of Special and Differential Treatment for developing countries, enshrined in the WTO and the 2030 Agenda, to enjoy exemptions, even if their own fisheries are quite developed – as in the case of China (and of course, the US strongly objects to a Chinese exemption given its ramifications for the wider “trade war” between the two countries).

India reportedly continues to argue that the WTO Fisheries Subsidies Elimination Agreement (WTO SEA), as written, would place undue burden on its small-scale artisanal fishers, but in fact the opposite is true: the WTO SEA would facilitate access to resources and markets for small-scale artisanal fishers, because owing to the Special and Differential Treatment clause it is primarily the large industrial fleets that would be affected. These examples show that the long war of attrition is not over yet. The contradiction between these long-held positions and governments’ stated commitments to the SDGs has never been starker.

Twenty years on from Seattle, a new generation has taken up the reins; not many of us are still around who were involved back when this war of attrition began.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and Ambassador Wills both emphasize the need for flexibility. “To get it done, we need to be flexible. We need to see where we are, where most of us meet,” Dr. Okonjo-Iweala told the WTO Heads of Delegation on 12 April 2021.

Indeed, when you’re stuck in a war of attrition, can you really expect that one side will totally capitulate to the other? And even if that were the case, history shows that victory may be short-lived given the resulting backlash.

There is only one month left to fine-tune possible agreements for governments to stop funding overfishing. The Director-General recognizes that “concluding these negotiations is a top priority for this organization, not only for the fisheries, but also for the WTO system.”

“We simply cannot afford to fail here,” she said in April. This is certainly true: after a 20-year war of attrition, while the WTO must save fish, it must also save face.

This guest article is authored by Rémi Parmentier, Director of The Varda Group and Adviser, Friends of Ocean Action. He has been an environmental advocate at the World Trade Organization for over two decades, and attended WTO ministerial conferences in Seattle (1999), Doha (2001) and Buenos Aires (2017). Twitter: @RemiParmentier

This article was originally shared by IISD.