GENEVA — Diplomats failed to meet an end-of-year deadline for a deal aimed at halting government subsidies that contribute to overfishing, several high-ranking World Trade Organization officials confirmed on Monday.
Many coastal communities around the world depend on fisheries for food and livelihoods, but must compete with government-financed industrial fishing vessels that draw down local fish stocks, according to economic and environmental experts who describe it as a tragedy of the commons, pitting self-interest against conservation.
Karl Brauner, one of WTO’s four deputy directors-general, said almost two decades of negotiations on how to eliminate the widespread subsidies that contribute to unreported and unregulated illegal fishing came up empty-handed this month despite the deadline.
“The fisheries subsidies group in particular has been in continous negotiating mode,” Brauner, a German lawyer and career bureaucrat, said in a statement. Despite their “intensive work,” he said, trade diplomats “will not deliver an agreement on fisheries this year” that fulfills the non-binding deadline.
The talks began in Qatar’s capital Doha in 2001. They were supposed to conclude by the end of 2020, in line with progress towards the United Nations’ 17 anti-poverty Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, which were adopted five years ago. Now they are scheduled to resume in the third week of January.
“I am disappointed but not discouraged,” said Brauner. “While we are still short of the finishing line, the negotiations have made considerable concrete progress towards finding a solution that all members can accept. Renewed engagement, with greater political will and pressure from civil society, can get us there.”
“It is widely considered that harmful fisheries subsidies jeopardize the livelihoods and food security of small-scale coastal fishing communities around the world.”
–@ThomsonFiji, UNSG’s Special Envoy for the Ocean#SDG14 @FriendsofOcean
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— UN DESA Sustainable Development (@SustDev) December 15, 2020
Regulating fisheries subsidies
Fishing subsidies may run as high as US$35 billion worldwide, including US$20 billion that directly contributes to overfishing, according to the Geneva-based U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, which deals with trade, investment and development issues.
Some of the major fishing nations of Europe and Asia favor less-than-total limits on subsidies, while some developing nations want to be virtually exempted from limits. The annual subsidies help industrialized fleets maintain capacity through boat-building, maintenance and purchases of gear, fuel and ice. Among the largest providers of subsidies are China, the European Union, Japan, South Korea and Spain.
Meantime, the percentage of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels rose to 34.2 percent in 2017 up from 10 percent in 1974, according to Food and Agriculture Organization statistics.
“These subsidies effectively mean that taxpayers are paying industrial boats to degrade the environment and to destroy the food security and livelihoods of vulnerable coastal communities,” according to UNCTAD, which joined with FAO and the U.N. Environment Program in 2016 to propose a “roadmap” for ending subsidies. “By fueling unfair competition between large fleets and individual artisanal fishermen, they are also fostering inequality.”
That roadmap, or joint statement, offered a four-point plan supported by at least 90 U.N. member nations — mostly in Africa and South America — and more than a dozen international and regional organizations. It would require countries to disclose information about their subsidies; prohibit those subsidies; introduce new policies of deterrence; and give special, differential treatment to developing countries.
The statement built on the 2015 SDGs, which includes commitments to conserve and sustainably use oceans, seas and marine resources.
In September, diplomats from among a group of WTO’s 164 member nations began a new phase of talks over a proposed compromise. Colombia’s WTO ambassador, Santiago Wills, who presided over the talks, said the group made progress but lost too much time to shutdowns and the inability to meet in person due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Let me say that what I anticipated for 2020, when I became chair of the negotiations a year ago, has almost nothing in common with the 2020 we have just lived through,” said Wills.
“It is now clear that we simply cannot make up the time we’ve lost to the COVID-19 pandemic nor bring the negotiations to a successful outcome this year,” he said in a videotaped message issued by WTO, in which he called for more flexibility and compromise. “We nevertheless did our best to keep up a strong pace of work, and the truth is we did make a lot of progress this year.”
Though the WTO is not part of the U.N. system, the missed deadline also is a setback for the U.N.’s efforts to fulfill its SDGs by 2030. Peter Thomson, a diplomat from Fiji who is the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy for oceans, called it a disappointment.
“A new plan will be proposed soon to continue negotiations in the coming months,” Thomson said in a statement released by Friends of Ocean Action, an international coalition he co-chairs with Isabella Lövin, Sweden’s deputy prime minister and environment minister.
“It is patently clear people around the world are very disappointed that harmful fisheries subsidies continue to exist,” he said. “These subsidies have been identified as one of the chief causes of the ecosystem collapses we’re observing in the ocean.”