On fisheries subsidies, nations must have the courage to change course

WWF Oceans
4 min readFeb 12, 2024

Can the World Trade Organization land a groundbreaking deal to tackle overfishing?

By Anna Holl-Buhl, WWF Global Lead, WTO Fisheries Subsidies Negotiations

© James Morgan / WWF-US

Change is hard. It is especially hard when huge sums of money are involved, when ways of working are entrenched and political interests are strong. But right now, change is necessary in the fisheries sector. Nations must cut the subsidies that drive overfishing, depleting our ocean and creating an uneven playing field.

Reforming fisheries subsidies has been a perennial topic at the World Trade Organization for decades. Under the Sustainable Development Goals agreed in 2015, nations pledged “by 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.”

The SDG target gave the issue some wind in its sails. The high-water mark came in 2022, with a breakthrough agreement to limit some subsidies for fishing overfished stocks, for IUU fishing and for vessels fishing on the unregulated high seas.

Positive pressure to advance the issue was added when nations agreed in the Global Biodiversity Framework to phase out and reform US$500 billion dollars a year of subsidies harmful to nature by 2030, while scaling up positive incentives for biodiversity conservation. Cutting roughly US$22 billion a year in harmful fisheries subsidies would be a big step in the right direction.

Many negotiators and observers approached the current round of talks to tackle the subsidies that drive overcapacity (too many vessels on the water) and overfishing (catching too many fish) with optimism. We knew there would be conflict and compromise, but there was consensus about the need for action.

We heard from 199 (and counting) scientists telling us that overfishing is a major threat to ocean biodiversity and subsidies exacerbate CO2 emissions, while “removing harmful subsidies, and therefore overfishing, will help to rebuild diverse fish populations, subsequently leading to increased levels of sustainable catches, and income for fishers.”

Yet even with the weight of environmental and economic arguments in favour of finding an agreement, we have hit a wall of intransigence.

The biggest subsidizers are shirking their responsibility to commit to significant cuts, and developing countries say they can’t carry the burden to reform on their own. The problem with these positions is that even if a country “wins” this round of negotiations, it loses. The end result is an unsustainable system that will drive fish populations — and the whole fisheries sector, its jobs and food production — off a cliff.

© iAko R. / WWF-Madagascar

Instead of treating this like any other trade talks, WTO ministers must realize that these agreements are fundamentally about the long-term sustainability — survival — of wild animal populations and ecosystems on which billions of people depend. Globally, the ocean delivers an estimated value of US$2.5 trillion each year in ecosystem goods and services. Continuing to fund overfishing as we do today is throwing sand into the gears of that economic engine.

Reaching an agreement will require courage and — crucially — an ability to see beyond this moment. WWF, Pew and our partners in the Stop Funding Overfishing Coalition call for leadership by the largest subsidizers. Here’s what needs to be done:

  1. Focus on the problem: overcapacity and overfishing. Be direct about the types of subsidies that need to go, including those for fuel, equipment, construction of vessels, and market price of fish caught.
  2. Limit exemptions. We know some loopholes or allowances will make their way into the agreement, but keep the ambition high and the goal in sight — rebuilding and maintaining scientifically determined sustainable fish stocks.
  3. No exemptions for distant-water fleets. Only a few governments support fleets that fish in other countries’ waters, and they are the biggest subsidizers. Small nations and small-scale fishers are then left to compete against well-funded foreign fleets. Time to end this unfair practice.
  4. Flexibility AND sustainability. Special considerations given to developing countries — beyond exemptions awarded to the Least Developed Countries — should not undermine sustainability objectives, and should be based on transparency around subsidy programs. Flexibility for countries to fully implement the agreement must be specific, targeted and time bound.
  5. No fuel subsidies. Fuel subsidies are among the most harmful and pervasive. They drive overfishing by propping up activities that would otherwise be unprofitable and increase greenhouse gas emissions. They must be prohibited in all cases.

This may seem like a high bar when countries are dug into the customary defensive positions of trade negotiations. But these are actually the minimum criteria if the WTO and the ministers appointed to it want to fulfill the pledge they made to help end the global overfishing crisis. It is high time for WTO members to remind themselves why they started these talks in the first place. Ultimately, squabbling like gulls over the last fish would be a hollow victory.

Find Anna Holl-Buhl on LinkedIn.

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WWF Oceans

#Ocean Practice @WWF 🐼 Working to protect and restore ocean health for the benefit of people, nature and climate. Not all RTs are endorsements.