WTO fails to agree an end to harmful fisheries subsidies

Published on December 16, 2020

World Trade Organization (WTO) members failed to meet the United Nations’ 2020 deadline for reaching an agreement to end harmful fisheries subsidies, when they met in Geneva 14 December. Still countries made significant progress during the negotiations – paving the way for a deal in 2021.

After more than two decades of negotiations, the WTO has announced it will miss its 2020 deadline to reach an agreement on eliminating harmful fishing subsidies. Countries will resume talks in January, trying to resolve the disputed passages in the consolidated draft document.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that the state of the world’s fish stocks is “poor and deteriorating.” Still, governments hand out $22 billion a year in damaging subsidies to primarily large, industrial fishing fleets to help cover costs such as fuel and vessel construction, enabling them to catch more fish than is sustainable by fishing farther out to sea and for longer periods.

World leaders committed in 2015 to several U.N. sustainability targets; one mandated the trade watchdog finally to strike a deal by 2020 on ending the subsidies that contribute to overfishing.

China, the European Union, the United States, South Korea and Japan are among the main culprits.

“While I am disappointed we will miss the 2020 deadline, I’m not discouraged. To the contrary, the momentum is there and we must not waste it”, Colombia’s Santiago Wills told Reuters.

Exemptions for developing and least-developed countries, and rules concerning disputed waters are two major sticking points in the negotiations, among dozens that remain to be resolved. The missed deadline, on one of the first major sustainable development targets, may set a precedent for reaching future targets and raises questions about the WTO’s ability to facilitate the U.N. goals. Harmful subsidies fund otherwise economically impossible overfishing and incentivize illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) practices, contributing to the perilous state of global fish stocks.

“For decades, irresponsible practices have depleted fish populations and damaged economies and ecosystems. Because destructive subsidies are a key driver of overfishing, ending these subsidies is one tangible way to help ensure sustainable fisheries. Now, the WTO is poised to reach an agreement that would do just that”, said Isabel Jarrett, manager of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ project to end harmful fisheries subsidies, and continued:

“Even in a political environment that makes it tough to get things done – and despite a global pandemic that caused unforeseen delays in the negotiations process – WTO members have made significant strides. If countries reach an agreement on harmful fishing subsidies that keeps loopholes to a minimum, they will achieve a conservation victory that could have a long-lasting, positive impact on our global ocean”.