December 10, 2021
Reeling in a Deal to Save the Ocean
Source: Project Syndicate


Governments have long promised to reduce destructive fisheries subsidies in order to curb unsustainable and unprofitable fishing activity. The World Trade Organization's upcoming 12th Ministerial Conference in Geneva will test the credibility of that pledge.

AUCKLAND / MADRID / VICTORIA / ANSE ROYALE – The ocean covers more than 70% of our planet's surface, produces half of the oxygen we breathe, feeds billions of people, and provides hundreds of millions of jobs. Climate change: over 80% of the But this precious natural resource is not invincible. Despite all the benefits it affords us, the ocean today faces unprecedented man-made crises that threaten its health and its ability to sustain life on Earth.

The greatest threat to marine biodiversity is overfishing. More than one-third of global fish stocks are overfished and a further 60% are fully fished. Each year, governments around the world encourage overfishing by providing $22 billion in harmful fisheries subsidies.

Although these subsidies. are designed to help support coastal communities, they instead prop up unsustainable and unprofitable fishing activity, depleting the very resource on which local populations' livelihoods depend.

This problem is not new. In fact, the World Trade Organization's members have been trying to negotiate a deal to curb these damaging payments since 2001. World leaders reiterated their commitment to tackling the issue when they agreed in 2015 to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Under SDG 14, which aims to put a healthy ocean at the heart of the global sustainable-development agenda, leaders promised by 2020 to reach an agreement at the WTO that would reduce fisheries subsidies. But they missed the deadline, as negotiations slowed during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research shows that if WTO members were to eliminate all harmful fisheries subsidies – the most ambitious scenario – global fish biomass could increase by 12.5% ​​by 2050. That's an additional 35 million metric tons of fish, or more than four times North America's annual fish consumption in 2017. And this is a conservative estimate. Removing destructive subsidies really will mean more fish in the sea.

The aim is not to remove support from fishing communities, but rather to redirect it in a more meaningful and less damaging way. Even if a deal does not eliminate all harmful subsidies, it would create a global framework of accountability and transparency for subsidy programs. That, in turn, would spur dialogue between governments, fishing communities, and other providers to spur the development of redesigned policies that better support fisherfolk while protecting our global commons.

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