July 15, 2021
LWO letter to Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General, World Trade Organization
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Director-General World Trade Organization

Dear Madam Director-General,

The Leading Women for the Ocean network warmly congratulates you on your appointment as Director-General of the World Trade Organization. This represents a historic milestone for female leadership at the highest level of global affairs. We are also hugely encouraged by the strong commitment to protecting our ocean which you have shown since your very first day in office by making the delivery of an ambitious agreement to end harmful fisheries subsidies a top WTO priority.

We welcome your leadership in calling for the conclusion of a meaningful global deal on harmful fisheries subsidies and delivering on WTO’s SDG 14.6 mandate at a special ministerial meeting on 15 July. Any further delay to this critical agreement will be detrimental to the health of the ocean and the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Leading Women for the Ocean is a network of women leaders from across the globe dedicated to conserving our ocean while elevating the participation of women in this space. Founded in 2019 by former First Lady of Japan, Akie Abe, and former EU Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, Maria Damanaki, our network includes prominent women leaders, such as a filmmaker and Oceana Board Member, Susan Rockefeller, and former First Lady of Palau, Debbie Remengesau. We share the belief that to leverage the full potential of ocean conservation to address the climate emergency and support sustainable livelihoods for all people, we must also help to realize the full potential of women. The challenges facing our ocean ecosystems, and the millions of people who rely on marine resources for their survival, are immense and urgent and cannot be met if we leave women’s perspective off the table.

As you have highlighted in recent statements, harmful fisheries subsidies are a key driver of overfishing, the greatest global threat to marine biodiversity. The benefits of an ambitious WTO agreement for both the health of the ocean and the well-being of the communities who depend on it are undeniable. That is what is driving the extensive, growing support for your efforts to reach an agreement across civil society and the private sector. This includes a diverse group of stakeholders representing industry, NGOs, academia, and think tanks, all united behind this goal and calling on WTO Member States to conclude the fisheries subsidies negotiations with a positive deal. In this vein, we would like to highlight the new Oceana-supported research maps on fisheries subsidies published on June 30, 2021.

The implementation of SDG 14 – and in particular Target 14.6 on the elimination of harmful fisheries subsidies that contribute to overfishing, overcapacity and IUU fishing – is a critical piece of the Agenda 2030 puzzle. Reforming fisheries subsidies and reorienting funds towards the monitoring and enforcement of sustainable fishing, protecting marine resources, and adapting to climate change, could help governments meet SDG targets on gender equity, reducing poverty, eliminating hunger, and increasing access to education, health and good jobs. It would also help to empower women, who make up half the global workforce in the fisheries sector, and experience the brunt of climate related impact, but are often excluded or marginalized in decision making.

It is vital that gender and equity considerations are prioritized when making decisions about fisheries subsidy provision and reform. Studies show a marked gender differentiation in the division of labour in the fisheries sector, particularly in developing countries, with men often doing the fishing and owning the vessels, while women are predominantly employed in less visible processing and selling roles. As a result, government reforms targeting specific activities in the fish value chain have a gendered impact. In Senegal, for example, the livelihoods of women fish processors and traders are particularly sensitive to the supply of fish, which is threatened by capacity-enhancing subsidies that encourage overexploitation of stocks. In Vietnam, men are the biggest direct beneficiaries of existing subsidies, as they are the ones who fish, own the boats, and have fishing businesses and companies. The processing sector — where women and youth represent the vast majority of the workforce — does not receive any subsidies at all. Subsidies not only harm the ocean, they entrench deep inequalities that limit the opportunities of women.

Ending state support for harmful fishing is vital and urgent, but to mitigate any short-term negative impacts of subsidies reform, it is also important for governments to ensure that, when they remove subsidies, they also roll out effective programmes for income diversification and support vocational training and education, especially for women.

A high-ambition WTO deal under which developed and developing countries all contribute to curbing harmful fisheries subsidies would set the global ocean on a path to recovery. Reinvesting the billions of dollars currently squandered on these subsidies into equitable and sustainable fishing will help fight poverty, build food security and jobs, empower women and other vulnerable groups, combat climate change, and support sustainable development for future generations.

Leading Women for the Ocean fully supports your endeavours to secure a meaningful global agreement to end harmful fisheries subsidies at the WTO ministerial meeting on 15 July. We join your call on all Member States to close the remaining gaps in the negotiations and meet the WTO mandate to deliver SDG 14.6 without further delay. Our network is ready to provide any possible assistance to help meet this target. In recognition of your unwavering dedication to protecting the ocean and the many millions of women and men who depend on its health and resources, it is our honour to invite you to join our network of Leading Women for the Ocean.

Yours sincerely,

Aiko Shimajiri, Former Minister of State for Okinawa and Northern Territories Affairs and

Former Minister in charge of Ocean Policy and Territorial Issues

Debbie Remengesau, Former First Lady of Republic of Palau

Ingrid van Wees, signing in individual capacity, Vice President for Finance and Risk Management of Asian Development Bank

Kathy Matsui, Co-Founder, MPower Partners Fund and Former vice chair, Goldman Sachs Japan

Maria Damanaki, former EU Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries

Susan Rockefeller, documentary filmmaker and Board member of Oceana