Dear Deeply Readers,

Welcome to the archives of Oceans Deeply. While we paused regular publication of the site on September 1, 2018, we are happy to serve as an ongoing public resource on ocean health and economy. We hope you’ll enjoy the reporting and analysis that was produced by our dedicated community of editors and contributors.

We continue to produce events and special projects while we explore where the on-site journalism goes next. If you’d like to reach us with feedback or ideas for collaboration you can do so at [email protected].

Go Fish: International Talks to Ban Harmful Fishery Subsidies Collapse

Expectations that the World Trade Organization would reach an agreement this week in Buenos Aires to prohibit government subsides that promote overfishing and illegal fishing were dashed when one country blocked negotiations.

Written by Todd Woody Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Trawlers haul in a catch of haddock off the north coast of Scotland.Chris Furlong/Getty Images

When the World Trade Organization (WTO) opened negotiations on Monday in Buenos Aires to ban government subsidies that have contributed to the decimation of global fish stocks, observers had high hopes that action would finally be taken after nearly 20 years of discussion.

Only a day later, though, it was clear that some countries were not biting on a draft proposal to prohibit subsidies that promote overfishing and illegal fishing. By the time trade ministers from the 164 member nations of the WTO had ended their biennial meeting on Wednesday, no agreement had been reached – despite a 2020 deadline to prohibit fisheries subsidies to achieve a United Nations “Sustainable Development Goal” to promote ocean health. Nearly 90 percent of all commercial fish stocks are fully exploited or overexploited, and a third are being fished at unsustainable levels, according to the U.N.

Instead, the WTO punted fisheries subsidies to its next meeting in 2019. “Members agree to continue to engage constructively in the fisheries subsidies negotiations,” the organization said in a statement issued on Wednesday, “with a view to adopting … an agreement on comprehensive and effective disciplines that prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to” illegal fishing.

European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom called the failure to reach an accord banning fisheries subsidies “horrendous.”

Writing on Twitter on Wednesday, she said, “Members cannot even agree to stop subsidizing illegal fishing.” She added, “The E.U. tried really hard, but destructive behaviour by several large countries made results impossible. How did we end up here?”

In short, India. Observers in Buenos Aires laid the blame on that country for torpedoing what had appeared to be a growing consensus to at least ban subsidies for vessels and fleets engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

“India blocked everything, even an agreement on the elimination of subsidies that drive illegal fishing,” Claire Nouvian, chief executive of BLOOM, a Paris-based ocean conservancy nonprofit, said in a statement.

The country had sought an exemption from a proposed ban on subsidies that promote illegal fishing, arguing it would unfairly harm its small fishing fleets.

“The collapse of WTO negotiations will inevitably have a boomerang effect on small-scale fishers, not just in India, but around the world,” Nouvian added.

Small fisheries are a key source of jobs and food in developing countries – in the Philippines, for instance, local fishers comprise 85 percent of the industry and supply the country with 56 percent of its protein, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Globally, fish provide 20 percent of the world’s protein while island nations and regions in Asia and Africa rely on the sea for half of such sustenance.

The closing ceremony of the 11th WTO ministerial conference in Buenos Aires on Wednesday, December 13, 2017. (Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images)

Yet a study published in June found that industrial fishing fleets receive 90 percent of government subsidies designed to expand their size and reach, which researchers say results in overfishing. Small-scale fishers, on the other hand, garner only 16 percent of the $27-35 billion in total fisheries subsidies handed out globally each year.

WTO agreements must be reached by consensus, which gave India the ability to single-handedly bring negotiations to a halt.

India, however, wasn’t the only country standing in the way of an accord in Buenos Aires. BLOOM identified the United States, Russia, China and South Korea as posing obstacles to reaching a comprehensive ban on harmful fisheries subsidies.

The U.S. has historically taken a leadership role at WTO meetings, promoting consensus to reach global trade deals. The Trump administration, however, set a different tone at the Buenos Aires meeting when, at the opening of the conference, U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer criticized the WTO as “a litigation-centered organization.”

In the end, no agreements were reached in Buenos Aires across a range of issues, including agriculture, e-commerce and investment.

“We knew that progress here would require a leap in members’ positions,” WTO director general Roberto Azevedo said at the conclusion of the meeting, according to Bloomberg. “We didn’t see that.”

Suggest your story or issue.


Share Your Story.

Have a story idea? Interested in adding your voice to our growing community?

Learn more