The long-awaited multilateral negotiated agreement on fisheries subsidies was reached on 20 June 2022 at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Since 2001 WTO was mandated at the Doha Round to negotiate towards banning subsidies that encourage overfishing and threaten sustainability of fish stocks. That goal was further specifically stipulated in the 2030 sustainable development goals (SDG 14):
14.6 by 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing, and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations.
Fisheries subsidies, in general, are the most critical challenge to sustainable ocean governance. Nearly $35 billion in subsidies enhance capacity and aggravate overfishing. That remains the principal challenge for the foreseeable future.
The agreement, reached at WTO in June 2022, is a step in the right direction but, admittedly, falls far short of the greater expectations. It does however focus on reducing the fisheries subsidies that contribute to overfishing, particularly Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and on the unregulated High Seas, and bans support to fishing in areas where fish stocks are over exploited.
Experts and observers have identified so called large gaps in the agreement as it does not include a single reference to capacity enhancing or harmful subsidies, the main contributors to over exploitation of fishing resources. The latest agreement does not ban any public money from governments going towards subsidising capital cost such as modernising fishing fleets and replacing engines or running costs such as fuel.
Some observers have noted that despite having agreed to first steps towards a partial ban in the June WTO deal there were too many carve-outs for developed nations, as some means remain whereby subsidies may be continued. Critics have noted that the agreement should have focused on removing harmful subsidies, which aim has not been achieved in full; for instance, the agreement currently doesn't address subsidies directly but instead it has only removed subsidies from certain activities. The which should fall under a harsh spotlight in Lisbon,.
It was also observed that a key part of earlier draft texts included references to capacity building and harmful subsidies but were left out of the new agreement due to the difficulties of negotiating exceptions to a ban, something normally granted to developing countries. In response to criticisms the Director general of WTO insisted it was better to get an agreement rather than keep negotiating for years to come.
Other observers pointed out that the new agreement is a product of compromise among 164 countries so not perfect, but the best in the circumstances where the Ocean needs help now, and where the marine ecosystem as well as coastal communities cannot wait for a perfect solution. While in the view of many, the agreement fell short of expectations, it is a step in the right direction, given the critical situation humans face in the future of sustainable fisheries.
However, given the nature of multilateral negotiated agreements, the question once again is - is the glass half empty or half full and will the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon save our Ocean from the curse of capacity enhancing subsidies?
Dr Awni Behnam
Honorary President IOI