After two decades of discussions, the World Trade Organization, WTO, finally reached a deal aimed at curbing overfishing which was hailed by conservation groups as a major turning point, even if it was the result of compromises to seal the long-sought agreement.
The deal marks a crucial step in moving the world’s fisheries toward long-term sustainability and in multilateral efforts to address subsidies that harm the natural environment and the well-being of vulnerable communities, said the International Institute for Sustained Development, which also congratulated WTO members.
Negotiations towards banning subsidies that encourage overfishing and threaten the sustainability of the planet's fish stocks had been going on at the World Trade Organization since 2001. The text was watered down compared to what had originally been envisaged, but WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala insisted it was better to get an agreement rather than keep negotiating for years to come.
The deal on fishing subsidies had environmental sustainability at its heart, Okonjo-Iweala said. The deal, she said, targets subsidies that contribute to illegal, undeclared and unregulated fishing, and bans support to fishing in areas where fish stocks are overstretched.
The agreement, she added, marks a first but significant step forward towards reducing the fishery subsidies that contribute to overfishing on unregulated high seas.
Fisheries support the livelihoods of millions of people, including some of the world’s poorest, who rely on marine resources for food as well as income. But the world’s fishing fleet is far too large for the size of the resource it exploits; by some estimates, it is 2.5 times larger than what would be required to fish sustainably. The final treaty reached in Geneva seeks to ensure support provided to often vulnerable fishing communities does not undermine the sustainability of the resource they depend on.
The agreement prohibits subsidies for vessels and operators engaged in illegal, unreported, or unregulated (IUU) fishing and establishes new rules for subsidies for the fishing of stocks that are already over-exploited. It also prohibits subsidies for fishing of stocks on the high seas that are not managed by regional bodies. The treaty contains certain flexibilities for developing country WTO members, known as special and differential treatment.
“This agreement matters because it will require governments to think critically about their subsidy policies and how they interact with efforts to manage natural resources sustainably,” said Alice Tipping, Lead, Sustainable Trade at IISD.
The new agreement is the product of compromise among 164 countries, so it's not perfect, said Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International. But the ocean needs help now, and marine ecosystems as well as coastal communities cannot wait for a perfect solution, he said.
What the WTO has delivered is an agreement that should be a catalyst for further subsidy and fisheries reform.
Another NGO, Bloom, called it a first historic step for the ocean and a giant step for transparency. A study co-authored by Bloom found that subsidies to the fishing sector amount to US$ 35.4 billion worldwide in 2018, with 80 percent going to industrial-scale fishing.
The deal bans subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, with a two-year exemption for developing countries within their exclusive economic zones, or 200 nautical miles.
In addition, the text allows for subsidies if they are implemented to rebuild the fishing stock to a biologically sustainable level.