The clock is ticking on subsidy action
A new scientific study detailing the continued escalation of ‘harmful’ fisheries subsidies has cranked up the pressure on world leaders to deliver reform, writes Jason Holland
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has just a few months to fulfil its longstanding mandate to deliver binding rules that prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies deemed to be damaging to fish stocks. But with the international trade body’s Director-General Roberto Azevêdo reminding the 164 member governments that the world is watching and looking for meaningful outcome, a new scientific study has found that the fisheries subsidies widely regarded as being responsible for many destructive fishing practices have actually gained more ground in the last decade.
UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 14.6 calls for prohibiting certain forms of fisheries subsidies by 2020, specifically those that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminating subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and refraining from introducing new such subsidies. Consequently, at the 2017 WTO Ministerial Decision on Fisheries Subsidies, member nations agreed to engage constructively in fisheries subsidies talks, with a view to adopting an agreement by the end of 2019.
Now, with this deadline looming large, the new paper, ‘Updated estimates and analysis of global fisheries subsidies’, compiled by researchers at the University of British Columbia and published in Marine Policy, finds that at US$22.2 billion in 2018, the value of harmful capacity-enhancing fisheries subsidies has increased as a proportion of global fisheries subsidies (valued at $35.4 billion). It identifies that fuel subsidies are the largest type of subsidy at 22% of the total, adding that this is not good news as it is the subsidy most directly linked to overfishing as more fuel means more boats out on the ocean for longer, fishing more.
Lead author and professor in interdisciplinary ocean and fisheries economics, Rashid Sumaila, told WF that the most telling result of the study is that the proportion of harmful subsidies went up in 2018 compared to 2009.
“This is hugely disappointing given the considerable efforts put in by various parties to protect the world’s fish and fisheries from the harm caused by harmful subsidies in the last decade,” he said.
Uneven playing fields
According to the study, which surveyed 152 countries, the most significant change is seen in Africa, where between 2009 and 2018 fisheries subsidies increased by 101% or $1.1 billion, with capacity-enhancing subsidies increasing by 121% or $800 million. Furthermore, in the South, Central America and Caribbean region, there has been a reduction of 25% in beneficial subsidies, but an increase of 33% in the capacity-enhancing subsidies.
The top five subsidising entities are China, the European Union, the United States, the Republic of Korea and Japan, which collectively contribute 58% or $20.5 billion of the total estimated subsidies. The authors also state that there has been a recent push by both the EU and the United States to reintroduce capacity-enhancing subsidies, while Asia (including China) is by far the leading subsidising region with 55% of the total. Europe follows with 18%.
Japan and the EU each provide more than $2 billion in capacity-enhancing subsidies to their fleets, with the paper identifying that these are two important fishing states particularly when it comes to distant water and high seas fishing. Meanwhile, most subsidies provided by China and Korea are classified as capacity-enhancing subsidies.
Sumaila said that there are “no big surprises” in terms of the main sources of subsidy funding: For EU countries, it is coming from EU, national and local government budgets; for developed countries and China, the subsidies come from domestic sources; and for developing countries, it’s a combination of domestic and international sources.
He added that it was also clear from the research that with 86% of the estimated subsidies going to the large-scale operations, local fishers and coastal fishing communities are being overlooked by their governments.
“Science tells us that the world needs to redouble its efforts to secure a WTO agreement to eliminate harmful subsidies that drives overfishing and illegal fishing. Governments should instead redirect public funds towards supporting activities that benefit the billions of people who depend on seafood for their nutrition and livelihoods. Removing overfishing subsidies is urgently needed not only because they catalyse the depletion of marine resources but also because they threaten the success of the UN Sustainable Development Goals by aggravating food insecurity, increasing poverty and gender inequality.”
Prioritising ocean health
Ideally, Rachid Sumaila wants the WTO to agree to take out and/or redirect all current capacity enhancing subsidies, i.e. those subsidies that reduce fishing cost such as fuel and also those that artificially increase fishing revenues, and he said that this will automatically include subsidies to vessels engaging in IUU fishing. At a minimum, he would want to see stipulations equivalent to those in the original Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.
“At the moment it does not look like enough progress has been made to get an agreement approved. But, there [is] still hope, because I believe big movements can be achieved as the deadline approaches.”
Isabel Jarrett, manager for The Pew Charitable Trusts, which commissioned the study, insists that after years of talks, governments must come together and demonstrate to the world that they can deliver an outcome of global significance “before it is too late”.
She said, “Ending harmful fisheries subsidies is potentially the single greatest action that governments can take to restore the health of the ocean.”
Applying further pressure for subsidy action, Sir David Attenborough has sent a video message to the WTO in which he outlines “an achievable vision for a healthy ocean with fish stocks recovered, monitored wisely, fished sustainably, and feeding many more people than they do now”.
Produced in collaboration with the World Economic Forum and WWF, the broadcaster and naturalist’s message warns that nations are standing in their own way by paying “huge sums of public money to keep damaging and destructive fishing activities afloat”, and highlights that government subsidies are keeping fishing boats fishing, even when there are too few fish left for fishing to be profitable.
“These subsidies create tensions between fishermen and nations and they also fund the ongoing destruction of the natural world on which we all depend. But all is not lost. We can turn this around right now,” he said. “The WTO has previously negotiated global rules for government subsidies to industry and farming. Now it’s time to put an end to subsidies that harm our oceans too.”
With the WTO talks at a critical stage, Attenborough acknowledged that reaching the right deal might not be an easy task, but that it is still a deal that’s within reach.
“We must seize this opportunity and act now to ensure a healthier future for each and every one of us, forever,” he said.
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