Major milestone in curbing harmful fishing subsidies

Our partner The Pew Charitable Trusts is pleased that the World Trade Organization (WTO) members reached a binding agreement on fisheries subsidies in June (2022). Senior Officer Ernesto Fernandez Monge explains what this agreement entails.

Curbing overfishing

Governments issue a total of $22 billion a year in subsidies to ensure the survival of the fishing industry. This includes subsidies that reduce the cost of fuel and vessel construction, subsidies for fishing on overfished stocks and for vessels fishing on the unregulated high seas. In doing so, this government funding often keeps unprofitable fishing fleets afloat. The WTO is the only organization that can create global agreements to curb these harmful subsidies.

The agreement

In brief, this agreement limits the provision of subsidies for:

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing

Senior Officer Ernesto Fernandez Monge works for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ project that aims to cut harmful fishing subsidies. He explains: “With this new tool for enforcement, governments can withdraw subsidies from vessels that do not comply with the rules. All Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) have lists of vessels that have been accused of illegal activities. When the WTO agreement goes into effect, the 150 or so ships currently registered on all lists will stop receiving subsidies. As a positive side effect, governments will be able to make agreements on how to maintain fish populations in areas that are currently not covered by regional agreements. Illegal fishing is still a frequent occurrence in unregulated seas.”

Fishing for overfished stocks

Ernesto: “Once it is established that an area is overfished, subsidies can be withdrawn from parties that do fish there. Determining whether or not an area is overfished is done on a scientific basis. It is all about keeping fishing at a sustainable level so that the fish population can replenish itself within a certain time frame. WTO members can also hold each other accountable: you allow subsidized fishing in that area and that is against the rules. If the members cannot come to an agreement among themselves, the issue can be taken to court.”

A fishing boat with light bulbs to lure squid at night.

Vessels fishing in unregulated seas

Ernesto: “This is especially going to affect species not covered by RFMOs agreements. Take squid fishing, there are no agreements at all on that. We now see countries such as China and Spain fishing for squid in the unregulated waters off Argentina, that is, outside that country’s territorial waters. This is happening because Argentina has no agreements with an RFMO. We see that that particular area is overfished for squid and that these catches are often related to illegal fishing, as has been shown by a study done using Global Fishing Watch data. If the Spanish and Chinese fishing fleets are no longer subsidized, this type of fishing will decline. We also think this measure will bring members together so that they can finally conclude agreements on catching squid and other species that have not yet been agreed upon.”

The next phase

The member countries have agreed to continue negotiations about the development of these new rules for fisheries subsidies. It is a lengthy process, with fisheries negotiations at the WTO starting back in 2001. The implementation of the rules cannot be realized overnight either: the next meeting will probably take place in December 2023 or spring 2024. All 164 WTO members signed the agreement, so once it enters into force, it will be binding on all members.

Adessium and The Pew Charitable Trusts

Adessium has supported The Pew Charitable Trusts in conducting the European Listening Tour, through which they informed European WTO negotiators about relevant and recent scientific developments. In addition, we support the development of the Global Atlas of Fishing Subsidies, an interactive tool for WTO delegates and other stakeholders that illustrates where subsidized fishing takes place outside territorial waters.

“It was a year characterized by many great alliances” – program managers People & Nature
The partner organizations in our program People & Nature achieved excellent results in 2021....