The first WTO agreement on fisheries subsidies hailed as historic despite “big gaps” | fishing industry

After 20 years of failed negotiations, the World Trade Organization reached an agreement Reducing harmful subsidies that contribute to overfishing. Conservationists and campaign groups hailed last week’s agreement as historic, despite criticism of the agreement’s “big holes”.

In her closing address, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said the deal was the first to be struck in Geneva for all 164 WTO member states with “environmental sustainability” at its core.

Fishing subsidies are the biggest factor depleting fish populations in the world. Without support, much fishing on the high seas wouldn’t be profitable, including the more harmful trawling along the sea floor, according to the 2008 study.

The Pew Charitable Trust, which has long campaigned with other organizations to end such subsidies, said the new agreement marked a turning point in tackling the main driver of poaching, despite scaling back its initial targets.

The agreement creates a global framework that limits subsidies to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, to fishing excessively depleted, and to vessels fishing on the unregulated high seas.

A group of people leaving an office, with the head of the World Trade Organization wearing traditional Nigerian prints and headdress
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General of the World Trade Organization, at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva last week. Photo: Fabrice Cofferini/AFP/Getty

It includes measures to enhance transparency and accountability for governments about how they support the industry, and to mark the inclusion of other subsidies in subsequent negotiations.

Some organizations said careful analysis revealed “significant loopholes” in the agreement. There are also practical problems with enforcement – which critics said would mean the agreement would have little impact on poaching, which has kept “the elephant in the room”.

Crucially, the agreement does not include a single reference to “capacity enhancement” or “harmful subsidies” – the largest of which lead to exploitation. Nor does any public money prohibit governments from going to support capital costs, such as modernizing fishing fleets and replacing engines, or operating costs such as fuel. This artificially lowers operating costs for the fishing industry, tends to favor larger vessels, and leads to overfishing, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The percentage of fish stocks considered within biologically sustainable levels fell to 66% in 2017 from 90% in 1990, according to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Daniel Skerrit, an analyst at Oceana, a monitoring organization, said at the Geneva meeting that the agreement fell short. “There have been a lot of cuts to developed countries,” he said. “There are enough ways to get around continued support, that’s my fear.”

At best, Skrett argued, a move to target overfishing, overfishing, the IUU and the high seas would remove a “trivial” share of perverse subsidies, estimated to be worth $22bn (£17bn) globally in 2018.

“The whole agreement was about removing harmful subsidies,” Skerrit said. “But it hasn’t. It doesn’t address support directly. Instead, it has eliminated support for certain activities.

“A lot of people are beholden to it because this has been politically difficult,” he said. “All I care about is, ‘Are fish stocks going to become more sustainable?'” “In its current form, I don’t think it will remove much subsidy from the hunting environment.”

A major part of the previous text – references to “capacity building” and “harmful subsidies” – were excluded from the new agreement, due to the difficulties of negotiating exceptions to the ban, something usually granted to developing countries.

Alice Teabing, of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, said: “What was lost in the midst of negotiations on Thursday was a specific rule addressing these subsidies which carry the greatest risks of encouraging overcapacity and poaching. This remained until later.”

The result is continued support that encourages poaching. Claire Novien, founder of Bloom, a French conservation organization, said: “They have closed support for poaching stocks but not for poaching.

“They left the elephant in the room by not incorporating capacity-enhancing support,” she continued. “It is the subsidies that create an incentive to over-fish, for too long, too far. It is really unfinished business.”

in 2018, study It has been estimated that governments spent $35 billion globally on subsidizing fishing, about 80% of which went to the industrial sector. It estimated that capacity-enhancing or perverse subsidies – those that artificially increase profits by lowering the cost of fishing, leading to overfishing – amounted to $22 billion of the total. Fuel subsidies, including tax credits, are the largest.

Professor Rachid Smaila, an economist at the University of British Columbia who has been following negotiations since 2001, said: “It’s been 20 years of struggle where nothing was ever agreed, and of course we’re glad that something exists. It’s hard to get 164 countries to agree to anything.

“But the subsidies that led to overcapacity and poaching, were brought down,” he added. “It is a huge disappointment. It’s the largest type of support worldwide – and that’s a huge gap. Our estimate is that you can get a 35% increase in catch if you remove all subsidies.”

According to the Pew Center, the top five sponsors are China, the European Union, the United States, South Korea and Japan, although not all subsidies are considered harmful and some will not be covered by any WTO agreement.