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Fishing fail: WTO negotiators flunk deadline to end harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020

A fisherman on the Fu Yuang Yu 380, a Chinese fishing boat, in Guinean waters in 2017. Image © Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace.

  • World Trade Organization member states missed a deadline to agree to curb harmful fisheries subsidies, part of the U.N.’s sustainable development goals.
  • Exemptions for developing and least-developed countries, and rules concerning disputed waters are two major sticking points, among dozens that remain to be resolved.
  • The missed deadline, on one of the first major sustainable development targets, may set a precedent for reaching future targets and raises questions about the WTO’s ability to facilitate the U.N. goals.
  • Harmful subsidies fund otherwise economically impossible overfishing and incentivize illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) practices, contributing to the perilous state of global fish stocks.

World Trade Organization negotiators failed to agree on rules to ban harmful subsidies to fisheries in time to meet a 2020 deadline. Months of intensive online talks ended on Dec. 14 with dozens of points reportedly remaining unresolved, including some major ones.

“While I am disappointed that we will miss the 2020 deadline, I am not discouraged,” Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, who chaired the negotiations, said at an informal remote meeting with senior negotiators from member states, Dec. 14. “All members are determined to bring this negotiation to the finish line.”

Wills said the body is finalizing a schedule for resumed negotiations in 2021, with the first meetings in January.

Many countries subsidize their fishing industries, giving out grants or tax exemptions that can artificially raise fishers’ profits by increasing their revenue or reducing their costs. These subsidies fund larger, more technologically advanced fleets than would otherwise be economically viable, a substantial body of research agrees.

Countries spent an estimated $35 billion on fishing subsidies in 2018, with China, the EU, U.S., South Korea and Japan the biggest spenders. Expert analysis suggests around 63% of the total meets the World Trade Organization (WTO) definition of harmful subsidies, as it increases fishers’ potential to catch more fish, in excess of ecologically sustainable levels. Fish stocks are declining alarmingly, with almost 94% fished to maximum capacity or overfished, according to a 2020 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Talks aimed at clarifying and improving WTO fisheries rules have plodded sluggishly since 2001. Urgency increased in 2015 when the U.N. set forth its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which established 17 goals, each with specific targets toward alleviating poverty and protecting the planet. Goal 14, target 6 (SDG 14.6) charges the WTO with convening countries to change fisheries subsidies that incentivize overfishing and to eliminate those that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing “by 2020.”

For some observers, the botched deadline underscores the WTO’s waning leadership.

“WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations represent a litmus test of the ability of the WTO to address effectively trade-related environmental issues and sustainable development,” Rémi Parmentier, a Greenpeace founder who has been involved in WTO discussions about fishing subsidies since 1999 and who pushed for the 2020 deadline, told Mongabay. “It is insane to have taxpayers support fisheries operations that would otherwise not be economically feasible because there are not enough fish left to catch,” said Parmentier, an adviser to the Friends of Ocean Action coalition.

Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, chair of the body negotiating fisheries subsidies at the WTO. Image courtesy of the WTO.

What went wrong?

The challenges of holding a virtual global negotiation due to pandemic restrictions hindered proceedings, according to members. The absence of a WTO director-general, after the U.S. blocked a replacement for outgoing director Roberto Azevedo of Brazil, may also have contributed.

Among the numerous stumbling blocks, two major ones were how exemptions from subsidy prohibitions should be awarded to developing countries, and rules for disputed waters.

SDG 14.6 requires that any agreement must carve out “special and differential treatment” (S&DT) for developing and least-developed countries. More than 80% of fisheries subsidies are estimated to go to large industrial fishing fleets, mainly from developed countries. These fleets take the majority of the global catch and their practices are less sustainable than those of the estimated 22 million small-scale fishers, mainly in less developed countries, who receive just 19% of global subsidies.

India and South Africa plus the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific nations group led a cohort of less and least developed countries calling for S&DT to protect subsidies vital to the livelihoods of small-scale fishers, according to Geneva-based officials.

China, estimated to be the world’s biggest contributor to fisheries subsidies at 21% of total global spend — and owner of the world’s biggest distant-water fishing fleet — wanted in on the exemptions. “China is arguing that it is a least developed country and deserves S&DT, and therefore should be exempt from some of the limitations,” Tabitha Mallory, founder of Seattle-based think tank China Ocean Institute and author of a 2019 analysis of global fisheries subsidies, told Mongabay.

Other top subsidy-spending developed member states, including the U.S. and EU, oppose S&DT that automatically qualifies developing countries for exemptions regardless of their contribution to global subsidies. Exempting China would undermine subsidies prohibition generally, and detract from the environmental urgency to curb overfishing and IUU practices, some member states say.

“It is not appropriate for any member here representing major fishing areas and marine capture, to seek a blanket carve-out,” Dennis Shea, the U.S. ambassador and representative to the WTO, said in a November statement to lead delegates for the negotiations. “The objective of this negotiation is to preserve the sustainability of fisheries resources, not to provide harmful subsidies to the fishing sector.”

Responsibility for cutting down on harmful subsidies should lie with member states that have provided huge subsidies for unsustainable fishing, rather than with developing countries that provide little to no subsidization, Brajendra Navnit, India’s ambassador to the WTO, said in an earlier statement to the negotiating group.

In March, India proposed that developing countries with a gross national income (GNI) per capita of less than $5,000 should be exempt from cutting subsidies. Mallory said the final agreement is likely to include some such criteria: India’s proposal would satisfy the requirement that S&DT be written into the agreement while excluding China, which has a GNI of $10,410 per capita, from exemptions.

“But it’s likely going to be tough to get China to agree to those terms,” Mallory said. “This may be the biggest challenge.”

Small-scale fishermen arrange their gear in Tombo, Sierra Leone. Image by Uzman Unis Bah for Mongabay.

Disputed waters

Territorial disputes, where more than one nation claims jurisdiction of an ocean area, were the other major sticking point.

“China definitely subsidizes fishing in disputed waters,” Mallory said. China proposed that “alleged” IUU fishing activity should be excluded from the agreement and not count as IUU if it occurred in an area where “territoriality, sovereignty or maritime jurisdiction” are in dispute.

For the Philippines, this does not work. Under China’s proposal, the Philippines’ entire exclusive economic zone (EEZ), much of which China and other countries dispute and the rest of which is “at risk” of being disputed, would be exposed to subsidized unsustainable fishing by other nations, according to a 2018 statement from the Philippines delegation to the negotiations. The Philippines’ own fisheries subsidies are minimal, the statement says, and its seas contain some of the most biodiverse habitats on the planet; leaving them open to overexploitation is not an option.

Political sensitivities surrounding disputed territories, such as the South China Sea — and the WTO’s lack of jurisdiction to determine marine territory rights — make agreement difficult. China, a crucial participant in the negotiations, is unlikely to sign any WTO agreement that impinges on its maritime claims, so the final agreement will likely include some kind of disclaimer on that point, Mallory said.

A Dutch super trawler fishing off the coast of Mauritania. Image © Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace.

Complex commitments

More than 170 environmental groups lobbied WTO members to strike a timely and meaningful deal to protect the ocean and its vital resources with a #StopFundingOverfishing campaign. WTO member states themselves also expressed strong commitment to reaching an agreement. Yet the states’ actions sometimes push in the opposite direction.

A January 2020 statement from then EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan called for the prohibition of harmful subsidies to be “as comprehensive as possible.” Less than a year later, however, concerned EU scientists have raised the alarm about a European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) deal informally struck this month that will reintroduce harmful subsidies to EU fisheries that were abolished in 2004. “If the EU does not remove harmful subsidies from the EMFF, an agreement at WTO aligning with the SDGs will not be achieved,” 130 scientists said in an open letter denouncing the deal.

Mallory expressed reservations about China’s commitment to a sustainable deal, too. “Yes, China is at the negotiating table and states it’s committed to getting an agreement, but they (and some other large fishing nations) are also working to get the weakest agreement possible,” she said. China’s WTO delegation did not respond to several requests for comment.

Parmentier stressed that countries seeking a meaningful end to harmful subsidies should remain determined. “This issue was deemed so urgent…that the target was set for implementation ‘by 2020,’” he said. “They’re already late, there should be no excuse now.”

The floundering of WTO negotiations over fisheries subsidies, one of the first of the U.N.’s major sustainable development goal targets to come due, has implications for the fate of the remaining goals, according to Parmentier. “If we cannot comply with the 2020 target, what hope is there for those coming later, in 2025 and 2030?” he said. “The UN 2030 Agenda and the SDGs are a package; if countries start to pick and choose as they please, the integrity of the package will be lost.”

Banner image: A fisherman on the Fu Yuang Yu 380, a Chinese fishing boat, in Guinean waters in 2017. Image © Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace. 

Elizabeth Fitt is a freelance photographer and reporter currently based in Beirut, Lebanon. She specializes in humanitarian and environmental issues and her work is published by various media outlets including Mongabay, the Sunday Times, Die Welt, Paris Match, The Telegraph, CNN, The National, Middle East Eye, and The New Humanitarian. More information can be found at her website and at Instagram via @elizabethfittphotography.


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