October 08, 2021
Race to the Bottom: harmful fishing subsidies jeopardize the ocean and livelihoods
Source: EFE Verde

Ingrid van Wees, vice president finance and risk at the Asian development bank and member of the “Leading Women for the Ocean”. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Asian Development Bank.

After over two decades of intense negotiations, the World Trade Organization (WTO) finally seems poised to tackle harmful fisheries subsidies when it meets next week.

Progress can't come soon enough for the world's fish stocks. Not only do staple species like tuna, grouper, and snapper face unsustainable fishing pressure in many parts of the world, rising sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification are damaging coastal habitats that serve as irreplaceable nurseries for these and many other marine resources.

Unfortunately, the latest IPCC Report makes it clear that temperatures will continue to climb for decades even if greenhouse gas emissions are regulated. Scientists say that the most important step we can take now to protect fish stocks is to end overexploitation.

Yet each year governments spend around $ 22 billion on subsidies that are designed to expand the fishing capacity of their fleets. It may seem like common sense to end support for activities that threaten an essential food source for billions of people, but fisheries subsidies seem to follow the same contradictory logic as other global commons dilemmas, like climate change, where nations pursue their individual short-term interests in spite of the damage it causes the planet.

Here, as elsewhere, the key players (and potential game changers) are large developed and developing economies, such as the European Union, United States, Japan, India, and China. Over the last 50 years, fishing powers from the Global North invested heavily in building up their fishing fleets, resulting in a steep decline of stocks.

Today, emerging fishing powers like China and India contend that they have the same right to invest in building the fishing capacity needed to feed their people. But with nearshore stocks around the world in decline, the global fleet has entered into stiff competition on the high seas and wherever fish populations remain in what marine biologist, Dr. Daniel Pauly, woefully calls a “race to the bottom.”

With ships traveling farther and fishing deeper, the operations have become more and more expensive. In fact, some economists estimate most of these trips are only profitable because of state support. In many cases, the impacts fall on coastal developing States, which have limited capacity to monitor their waters. Some have even linked overfishing to the rise of security challenges, such as piracy in the horn of Africa. In Somalia, for example, fishers muscled out by illegal foreign fishing trawlers were forced to find alternatives with some joining militias and unemployed youth to hijack vessels for ransom.

Most small countries can't afford to help their fishing industries compete offshore, and can face immense pressures from foreign fleets for fishing rights. In an innovative collaboration to protect their fisheries, livelihoods, and revenues, a group of Pacific small island nations joined together as Parties to the Nauru Agreement to help ensure foreign fleets stay within the biological limits of tuna stocks.

Moreover, little if any of the subsidies go to support processing and sales, jobs typically performed by women. Not only can subsidies damage fish stocks, they also exacerbate income and gender inequality. In Vietnam, men are the biggest direct beneficiaries of existing subsidies, 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, as they are the ones who fish, own the boats, and have fishing businesses and companies. they entrench deep inequalities that limit the opportunities of women.

It is probably no accident that the WTO negotiations have progressed as far as they have this year, in spite of delays and obstacles posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, an economist and Nigeria's former finance minister, became the first woman and African to be named the WTO's director general.

From the start, she has prioritized the subsidies talks and paid special attention to the historic, political, and economic sensitives involved. Under her leadership, parties have signaled support for the draft text, which focuses on ending subsidies to those found engaging in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, subsidies applied to overfished stocks and those that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing.

An analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts found that eliminating all harmful subsidies could result in a 12.5 percent increase in fish biomass worldwide by 2050—nearly 35 million metric tonnes of fish or three times Africa's entire consumption in one year. Long-neglected UN Sustainable Development Goal # 14.

But veteran observers warn that winning unanimous agreement among the group's 164 members hinges on which nations are granted exemptions to support their fleets—large fishing powers or small and poor coastal nations. The fear is if the door is left open for loopholes and wide exemptions, the talks will collapse or the final deal will lack environmental integrity and effectiveness.

Perhaps, WTO trade representatives could consider a compromise that would benefit all humanity: any remaining subsidies and exemptions must be directed at fisheries management, education, and community-based organizations that promote sustainability and equal access to the benefits of marine resources. get behind.

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