Harmful subsidies are affecting developing countries, devastating fish stocks and keeping fisher earnings below the minimum wage, according to the WTO. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is rethinking its stance on ‘harmful’ fishing subsidies in an effort to protect sustainable fisheries, as the state of the world’s oceans rapidly deteriorates.

Fishing subsidies that contribute to unsustainable fishing practices, as well as to illegal and unregulated fishing, are being revised. These subsidies most directly benefit large-scale fishing fleets and long-distance vessels.

Talks to change current fishing subsidies started 20 years ago in the WTO Doha Ministerial Conference, and were later made part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 14, which relates to life under water.

Which fishing subsidies are the most harmful?

The majority of ‘harmful’ fishing subsidies are those aimed at enhancing the fishing capacity of a vessel, including fuel subsidies, which make long-distance fishing economically viable. These subsidies are often depended upon by developing countries.

Prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and refrain from introducing new such subsidies. Target number six of SDG14

The subsidies have been linked to overfishing, and blamed to some extent for the percentage of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels increasing from 10% in 1974 to 34.2% in 2017, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

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Target number six of the UN’s SDG14 aims to put an end to these harmful subsidies. It had initially stressed that this should happen by 2020, but this deadline has passed. The target reads: “Prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and refrain from introducing new such subsidies.”

The target goes on to add that the situation in developing countries must be given special attention: “Appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and the least developed countries should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiation.”

Oceana, the non-profit ocean conservation organisation, published a report in June this year that mapped ‘harmful’ subsidies’ flows, showing that the top ten providers of harmful fisheries subsidies spent more than $5.3bn on fishing in the waters of other nations.

Harmful fishing subsidies can fuel food insecurity

The report by Oceana revealed that the top ten providers of harmful fisheries subsidies are largely from Asia (China, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia), but also include countries from Europe (Russia, Spain, Norway) and North America (the US).

In 2018, approximately $35.4bn of fisheries subsidies were provided to the global fishing sector via public sources, according to the report, with harmful fisheries subsidies accounting for approximately 63% of that total, some $22.2bn, and with fuel subsidies being the largest single subsidy type.

Subsidies that benefit long-distance fleets, allowing them to overfish in other countries, ultimately affect the more disadvantaged areas, which also depend more on fish for their animal protein intake, and this fuels food insecurity, explained Dr U Rashid Sumaila, co-author of the report and Oceana board member, in a press release.

“The mismatch between the cost and the benefits of fisheries subsidies has real moral and ethical implications,” he said. “On average, twice the dollar amount of subsidies from foreign nations go toward enabling distant water vessels to fish in Africa than what Africa provides to its own domestic fisheries. For some West African countries, fish accounts for up to 60% of protein intake.”

An end to harmful subsidies seems near

Although the 2020 deadline of SDG14 is now long gone, there is hope that the negotiations to end the harmful fishing subsidies will be over soon. WTO director-general Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala – appointed in March 2021 – first stated that he hoped these negotiations would conclude during the ministerial meeting of 15 July 2021.

That did not happen, but members did pledge to finalise the talks on fishing subsidies before the 12th Ministerial Conference, taking place between 30 November and 3 December 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland.

It remains to be seen whether this deadline will be reached and a path towards more sustainable fishing practices laid. The negotiations also hope to protect the most vulnerable regions and support those working in the fishing industry, a traditionally tough job where salaries are often below the minimum wage.

Ultimately, putting an end to harmful fishing subsidies will ‘only’ protect the seas and help to regenerate the oceans, potentially prolonging life on Earth while also breaking down inequality.

This move should benefit both fisheries – as stocks are protected, thus assuring a future supply of fish – and the planet, while promoting small-scale fishing and protecting the developing countries that are more reliant on fish as a source of protein.