WTO Clinches Deal Aimed at Reducing Global Overfishing

The agreement limits the subsidies that countries can provide fisheries.

By , a podcast producer at Foreign Policy.
Trawlers from the Murmansk fleet wait for the next fishing expedition in Murmansk, Russia, on Feb. 21, 2006.
Trawlers from the Murmansk fleet wait for the next fishing expedition in Murmansk, Russia, on Feb. 21, 2006.
Trawlers from the Murmansk fleet wait for the next fishing expedition in Murmansk, Russia, on Feb. 21, 2006. DARIO THUBURN/AFP via Getty Images

More than 160 countries pledged on Friday to limit subsidies to fisheries, in an international agreement that conservationists believe could help address overfishing and improve the health of the world’s oceans.

Members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) had been negotiating the deal for more than two decades. They reached a breakthrough in Geneva this week after multiple rounds of negotiations that continued into the early morning.

Santiago Wills, who chaired the negotiations and serves as Colombia’s ambassador to the WTO, hailed the agreement on Twitter Friday as a “great contribution to Ocean sustainability, fisheries, and the livelihoods of millions of people.”

More than 160 countries pledged on Friday to limit subsidies to fisheries, in an international agreement that conservationists believe could help address overfishing and improve the health of the world’s oceans.

Members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) had been negotiating the deal for more than two decades. They reached a breakthrough in Geneva this week after multiple rounds of negotiations that continued into the early morning.

Santiago Wills, who chaired the negotiations and serves as Colombia’s ambassador to the WTO, hailed the agreement on Twitter Friday as a great contribution to Ocean sustainability, fisheries, and the livelihoods of millions of people.”

Governments around the world provide an estimated $35 billion a year to the fishing industry. Many of these subsidies are directly linked to harmful fishing practices, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation by making it financially feasible to fish farther out at sea for longer periods of time.

The agreement did not cite a ceiling dollar figure for total subsidies. Instead, it requires member countries to curb subsidies that lead to “illegal, unreported and unregulated” fishing or subsidies that further deplete overfished stocks. The enforcement would be conducted by the WTO based on self-reporting by each country. Member states agreed to add more details to the agreement in future negotiations. 

“This is a turning point in addressing one of the key drivers of global overfishing,” Isabel Jarrett, who manages the Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to reduce harmful fisheries subsidies, said in a statement.

“Recognizing that there are still outstanding issues for WTO members to discuss, we were pleased to see them commit to recommending further rules on harmful fisheries subsidies at the next ministerial conference,” she said.

But other experts criticized the deal, saying compromises made in the negotiations effectively resulted in a substantially weaker agreement. 

“Our oceans are the big loser today,” said Andrew Sharpless, who runs Oceana, a large nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans.

“After 20 years of delay, the WTO failed again to eliminate subsidized overfishing, and in turn, is allowing countries to pillage the world’s oceans,” he said in a statement

Sharpless said the deal didn’t go far enough to limit the operations of industrial fishing fleets. 

The negotiations first got underway in 2001 but were repeatedly bogged down. In 2015, the United Nations included the elimination of harmful fisheries subsidies as one of its Sustainable Development Goals and set 2020 as a target date for an agreement. 

But the COVID-19 crisis that year derailed the negotiations over subsidies and other ocean conservation treaties.

In the past week, negotiators were able to reach a deal by paring down the provisions in previous drafts that restricted the subsidies that lead to overfishing. 

China, Japan, and the European Union are among the world’s leaders in fisheries subsidies, which inflate the size of the world’s fishing fleets by underwriting construction, maintenance, and fuel costs. Many major fishing countries, especially China and countries in the EU, have used public subsidies to build fleets bigger than they can sustain, poaching global fish stocks that get ever smaller. These subsidies, coupled with decades of advances in technology, have allowed a handful of countries to take the majority of the world’s catch, often far from their own shores. Spanish fishermen have gotten in trouble in Somali waters; Chinese boats nearly caused an incident with Jakarta.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that more than 30 percent of ocean fish stocks are being overfished and that many of the world’s fish stocks are at risk of being depleted. 

In a 2020 report, the agency said that in 2017, fish made up 20 percent of total animal protein consumption for 3.3 billion people around the world, while in some developing countries it was as much as 50 percent. 

India and other countries had raised concerns during the negotiations that the proposed deal would harm small-scale fishers. Many communities around the world rely on these fisheries for their economic survival. But experts say the bulk of subsidies go to larger industrial fleets.

It wasn’t immediately clear how far the restrictions would go toward alleviating the problem of overfishing. A total elimination of harmful subsidies would create an increase in global fish stocks equivalent to four times the amount of fish that all of North America consumed in 2017, according to estimates by experts. 

This deal, which is part of a broader trade package, is the first agreement struck by the WTO in nearly a decade. Agreements at the WTO require a consensus among all 164 member states in order to pass.

“The package of agreements you have reached will make a difference to the lives of people around the world,” said WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in her closing remarks.

“The outcomes demonstrate that the WTO is, in fact, capable of responding to the emergencies of our time.”

Rosie Julin is a podcast producer at Foreign Policy.  Instagram: @rosie.julin

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