It’s Time for the WTO to End Harmful Fisheries Subsidies

It’s Time for the WTO to End Harmful Fisheries Subsidies

For years, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has often been criticized for expanding trade at the expense of the environment. This year though, at the eleventh Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, being held December 10 – 13, the WTO has the opportunity to demonstrate the political courage needed to help improve the health of our oceans – by reigning in the harmful effects of subsidized fishing.

The tens of billions of dollars that governments provide in subsidies each year for the benefit of the fishing sector are key drivers of overfishing and illegal fishing. They incentivize the fishing industry to keep fishing even when it is not economical to do so. As fish stocks are depleted, subsidized fleets travel farther to find new catch – overexploiting area after area and thwarting positive outcomes from fisheries management plans. But what is even more difficult to fathom is that governments continue to subsidize fishing operators who fish illegally.

The Chinese government, for example, hands out hundreds of millions of dollars a year to distant-water fleets, many of which are reported to be fishing illegally. Some subsidized Chinese ships are traveling all the way to Latin America and West Africa, and those fleets are growing – having an “having an outsize impact on the globe’s oceans.” In Spain, even vessels accused of illegal fishing have been able to take advantage of millions of dollars in subsidies, some of which have been used to offset fines for illegal fishing.

In recent years, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing has begun to be recognized by the public and governments for the systemic, colossal problem that it is - a major driver of overfishing, ecosystem destruction, food insecurity and human rights violations worldwide.

Far-reaching media outlets, such as the New York Times and Associated Press, have covered the issue, bringing to light the negative consequences of illegal fishing, including slavery at sea, poaching, national security threats, fisheries on the verge of collapse and billions of dollars in stolen goods.

And governments have taken concrete actions to combat it. Fifty states and one member organization (the European Union) have signed the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Port State Measures Agreement, an international treaty to prevent illegally caught fish from entering global markets. In December of last year, the United States adopted new traceability regulations to combat illegal fishing, which will go into effect January 1, 2018, with the goal of preventing illegal seafood products from entering US markets. The EU has had legislation for almost a decade with extensive regulations in place aimed at preventing market access for IUU seafood products, while helping offending countries improve their systems. And other countries, such as Palau and Indonesia, have taken more extreme measures, creating massive “no-take” zones and even blowing up offending ships. Others are in the process of developing similar anti-IUU legislation and approaches.

These steps reflect global momentum to improve our collective stewardship of the ocean. Yet the WTO seems to struggle to move from aspiration to action. But that can change at this week’s meeting if it moves forward and adopts a comprehensive ban on harmful fishing subsidies first put on the WTO agenda two decades ago.

Inaction should not be an option. Marine ecosystems and fish stocks continue to decline at the expense of the health of our oceans and the tens of millions of people around the world who depend on them. It’s time for the WTO governments to put their excuses to bed and make good on their promise to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies.

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