Protecting global fisheries through the WTO

Source: A.C. (Cecilia) Malmström i, published on Friday, October 14 2016.

Few issues demonstrate better the challenges that are at the center of protecting the environment and supporting economic development, than our efforts to manage global fisheries. The overall picture remains alarming across the globe.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that more than 30% of the world's marine fisheries are overfished - a tripling since 1974 - and almost 60% are at the limit of sustainability. Many countries the world over subsidize their fishing activity in ways that contribute strongly to this overfishing. Since putting limits on damaging subsidies is one of the specialities of trade policy, it can play a crucial role here. This issue has been part of the so-called Doha Round of trade negotiations in the World Trade Organization, or WTO. Attempts have been made to also address it in free trade agreements, and piecemeal efforts have been undertaken recently to discuss the issue between smaller groups of countries. But none of these efforts can lead to wide-reaching, sufficient solutions. A broad, multilateral agreement covering all 164 countries of the WTO will be key to achieve meaningful progress, in order to help safeguard the world's fisheries. As we are talking about a truly global problem, just like for climate change, only a global solution will be enough to tackle it.

That is why the European Union is making a proposal to restart WTO negotiations on the issue of fisheries subsidies. The proposal from the Commission has now been given the green light of EU Member States, and will be presented to all WTO members later this week.

The international community already agrees that the problem needs to be addressed. Last year's adoption of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by Presidents and Prime Ministers set an unambiguous target. Governments are to prohibit - through the WTO, and by 2020 - "certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and refrain from introducing new such subsidies".

So, our task is clear - we need to transform this commitment into effective, targeted global action. Our priority at this moment must be to address the two most harmful types of subsidies. The first - subsidies that increase the capacity of fleets to catch fish, since they directly lead to overfishing. These co-called 'capacity enhancing' subsidies represent the majority of funding to fishing activity, according to estimates almost 60%. As a result, the global fishing fleet is far too large to ensure sustainable fishing.

The second are the subsidies granted to fishermen who engage in illegal, unregulated or unreported (IUU) fishing, resulting in the depletion of fish stocks and the devastation of natural habitats.

The rules the European Union is proposing would target exactly these kinds of subsidies.

Taking decisive action does not mean ignoring the needs of fishing communities in least developed and developing countries. Fishing is a source of subsistence and income for many, and an integral part of the daily life and traditions of communities worldwide. It is therefore crystal clear that we need to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. While the rapidly growing capacity of industrial fleets needs to be addressed, subsistence fishing needs to be protected. Developing countries must also be allowed to build up their fleets, as long as the main objective of safeguarding sustainable global fisheries is protected. So our EU proposal foresees flexibility for developing countries, while ensuring the sustainability of fisheries globally.

The EU is acting through its new Common Fisheries Policy, which will ensure that all EU fish stocks are fished at a sustainable level by 2020 at the latest. And the modernised European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) is tackling the specific issue of fleet capacity.

We now call upon other members of the WTO to join us in addressing this massive global challenge together, and to implement the commitments we made in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Negotiations should start immediately, in order to reach an agreement at the next WTO Ministerial Conference next year.

This blog post was co-written together with EU Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella.