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WTO reaches landmark deal to end harmful fisheries subsidies

It took more than 20 years, but government officials at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva have finally agreed a deal to cut harmful subsidies that undermine fish populations and damage the marine environment.

It is the first time that the 164 members of the WTO have concluded an agreement with “environmental sustainability at its core”, said WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in her closing remarks. “It is also about the livelihoods of the 260 million people who depend directly or indirectly on sea fishing,” she added.

The agreement prohibits subsidies to vessels and operators engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and limits funding that supports the exploitation of overfished stocks. It also prohibits subsidies for fishing on the high seas – areas beyond national waters – if the operations do not fall under the jurisdiction of a regional fisheries management organization (RFMO).

What are RFMOs?

Regional Fisheries Management Organizations are international bodies made up of countries with fishing interests in a geographical area or a highly migratory species, such as tuna. RFMOs can establish conservation and management measures on the high seas beyond the exclusive economic zones of individual nations.

However, in order to achieve consensus, states have postponed agreement on topics where agreement has proven elusive. Negotiations on the goal of eliminating subsidies that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity – the ability of a fleet to harvest more fish than is sustainable – will be reopened at the next ministerial meeting of the WTO, which will probably take place in 2023.

The agreement creates an international standard of transparency by obliging governments to make public the details of subsidies granted to their fleets and fishing operators. A Fisheries Subsidies Committee has also been created, which will meet at least twice a year to review information submitted by governments.

“What we have in terms of agreement is a really positive step. It’s quite an achievement that 164 members agree to take binding action for fisheries subsidies,” said Isabel Jarrett, Pew Charitable Trusts project manager. aimed at ending harmful fisheries subsidies “It also positions the WTO to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

What has been agreed?

Some of the key provisions of the WTO Fisheries Subsidies Agreement include:

• WTO Article 3 members cannot grant or maintain subsidies to vessels and operators engaged in IUU fishing activities; least developed countries (LDCs) benefit from a two-year exemption to implement this measure in their exclusive economic zone (EEZ);

• Article 4 Subsidies targeting overfished stocks should be prohibited, but a State “may grant or maintain subsidies if such subsidies or other measures are implemented to restore the stock to a biologically sustainable level”;

• Article 5 WTO Members shall not grant or maintain subsidies for fishing or fishing-related activities in areas of the high seas which are not under the jurisdiction of an RFMO and shall show restraint when ‘they plan to subsidize fish stocks whose status is unknown;

• Article 7 A voluntary WTO funding mechanism is established to provide technical assistance and capacity building to developing countries;

• Article 8 WTO members should strengthen and improve transparency and reporting of fisheries subsidies; this includes providing annual lists of vessels and operators identified as engaging in IUU fishing;

• Article 9 A WTO Fisheries Committee is created and will meet at least twice a year to review and improve the implementation of the agreement.

The extent of the problem

Fisheries negotiations at the WTO began in 2001. In recent years, the talks have gained new momentum, in part thanks to the adoption by UN member states in 2015 of a specific target for fisheries regulation under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as large-scale civil society campaigns such as the Stop Funding Overfishing coalition.

“The agreement does not solve all the problems, but its approval was essential,” said Rémi Parmentier, head of environmental consultancy The Varda Group and adviser to Friends of Ocean Action. “Governments will now stop wasting money on harmful subsidies and free up funds for better management of fisheries resources.”

Subsidies labeled as harmful allow fishing in places that would otherwise be unprofitable to fish. This increase in fishing activity can deplete fish stocks to unsustainable levels and alter the marine environment, affecting the livelihoods of coastal communities around the world.