The world trade organization struggle for more than two decades to reach an agreement between its members limit global subsidies to the fishing industry that are pushing some fish stocks to the brink of collapse. As recently as last November, trade negotiators seemed poised to limit those subsidies, until a spike in Covid-19 delayed the deal.
Now the question is whether a deal can still be reached when trade ministers from WTO members, representing most of the world’s nations, gather in Geneva for several days of meetings, starting on Sunday. The session comes as some of the world’s fish stocks continue to decline due to rampant overfishing that threatens their sustainability.
Success at the WTO always requires US leadership. But it will also require the world’s biggest financial enablers of harmful fishing, including China and the European Union, to end their devastating subsidies.
These include so-called capacity-building subsidies for fuel, construction and modernization of ships, construction of fishing ports and processing plants, as well as foreign access agreements that allow countries to fish in the waters of other nations for a fee once they have exhausted their national fish supplies. This government support allows vessels to go further, stay at sea longer, and catch and process more fish than they could otherwise afford. Worldwide, these harmful subsidies amount to about $22 billion a year, according to a study published in the journal Marine Policy in 2019.
Fisheries can be a renewable source of food and jobs, but only if exploited sustainably. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 34 percent global ocean fish stocks, representing almost a quarter of seafood produced, are already fished to the point of biological unsustainability. An additional 60% is currently fully fished – they cannot afford another increase in fishing. Recognizing this, some executives in the seafood retail sector are increasingly calling for end harmful fisheries subsidies, ensure the longevity of their supply chains and meet consumer demand for fish caught in a sustainable, responsible and legal way.
The global fish trade generated $164 billion in revenue in 2018 and accounted for almost 40% of the fish caught or farmed globally. In the United States, the commercial fishing industry employs 1.2 million people.
The most pernicious threat to fish populations is overfishing by industrial scale fishing operations subsidized by China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and various EU countries. China is estimated to spend more than $5.9 billion a year on these subsidies, and EU members continue to spend billions of euros even as WTO negotiations are underway.
The United States is not blameless. Although it has been a world leader in fisheries conservation, spending about $2 billion a year on marine protected areas, fisheries monitoring and surveillance, and scientific research, it still spends about $1.1 billion dollars per year in grants for capacity promotion, such as those for fuel expenses. If the United States redirected that billion dollars toward promoting long-term sustainability, it would help push other countries to do the same and lead to increased national catches in the long term.
If these capacity building grants cease, it is unclear what will happen to supply and prices in the short term. But science shows that an ambitious WTO deal could help fish populations rebound, possibly leading to lower prices. Eliminating all harmful fisheries subsidies could add 35 million tonnes of fish to the global ocean by 2050, says to research conducted by scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara and funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
As former ambassadors to the WTO from both political parties, we have worked to push forward an ambitious agreement during our tenure. Now the Biden administration has the opportunity to achieve an outcome that would benefit the global environment and American fishing and seafood businesses by leveling the global playing field and improving the long-term sustainability of the fishing industry.
In WTO negotiations, the United States must lead the world in reaching an agreement that includes strong prohibitions on subsidies that fund illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, as well as distant water fishing. – fishing in the waters of other countries or on the high seas just outside them. According to a study published in the journal Science Advances in 2018.
Tough rules in a WTO agreement could eliminate harmful subsidies while tackling the use of forced labor on fishing vessels – exactly the kind of environmentally and socially friendly trade paradigm that the WTO should and can promote. A WTO agreement could also help improve the transparency of these subsidy programs and help hold governments accountable. As with other WTO agreements, violators could be subject to legal action.
To reach a meaningful deal, the countries distributing the big grants will need to go beyond their declarations of support and be prepared to cut their most harmful donations. This includes the United States. But the WTO is the sum of its members. Sustained leadership from the United States will be essential, but major members such as China, the European Union, Japan and others must act in the interest of sustainability.
Pierre Allgeier is a former Deputy US Trade Representative and US Ambassador to the WTO during the Bush administration. Michael Punke is a former Deputy US Trade Representative and US Ambassador to the WTO during the Obama administration.