Talks at the WTO to save the world’s fish fail to reach agreement
“A DEBT THAT we owe to the global community” is how Santiago Wills, Colombia’s ambassador to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva, described the talks he has been chairing on ending subsidies for fishing that damages global stocks. Sadly, he was announcing a default. The aim of finalising an agreement by the end of this year will be missed. Negotiations have dragged on for two decades. They had been given some impetus by the decision in 2015 to include in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the aim of eliminating subsidies “by 2020”, a target missed and reinterpreted to mean the end of the year. But environmentalists are despondent that the last vestige of a hard deadline has now vanished. “Missing the SDG target is really important,” says Annabelle Bladon of the International Institute for Environment and Development, an NGO in London.
The talks are intended to eliminate subsidies that contribute to “illegal, unreported and unregulated” (IUU) fishing, estimated to account for a remarkable 20-50% of the global catch, as well as those that sustain legal overfishing and the building of overcapacity. Many fish stocks are collapsing. It is estimated that the proportion of the total stock of fish in the oceans that are overfished—ie, exploited at such a pace that the fish population cannot replenish itself—has risen from 10% in 1974 to 34% now. This is endangering coastal communities that rely on fishing. Roughly 39m people depend on capture fisheries for their livelihood. And fish provide 20% of animal-protein needs on average for 3.3bn people.
A big reason why it remains profitable to fish when stocks are low (and hence more expensive to catch) is that governments subsidise the industry—in a wide range of ways from cheap boats and gear to free ice, but above all, through cut-price fuel. Of the $35bn a year lavished on the industry, about $22bn ($7.7bn of which is for fuel) is estimated to contribute to the destruction of fish stocks. Some environmentally devastating practices—such as China’s bottom-trawling off the west African coast—are especially fuel-intensive both in the distance sailed and the type of fishing itself. A study published in 2018 in Science Advances, a journal, found that, without subsidies, 54% of high-seas fishing grounds would be unprofitable. Another study, by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has calculated that ending all harmful subsidies could result, by 2050, in a 12.5% increase in global fish biomass and a 3.5% rise in the annual global fish catch.
Mr Wills laid much of the blame for the failure to meet the deadline on the pandemic. It is certainly true that covid-19 has preoccupied governments, sucking attention, resources and political will away from many other concerns, including obscure and long-running talks at the WTO. It did not help that Switzerland in March banned all but very small gatherings, interrupting the process. The postponement of the WTO’s biennial ministerial meeting, due to be held in Kazakhstan in June, was a further setback to hopes of a political push for a deal. So had been the failure to appoint a new director-general after Robert Azevêdo relinquished the role in September, leaving the organisation with no high-profile advocate of a deal.
Big differences still remain between the parties despite the circulation of a revised, “consolidated” draft text last month. At issue are such basics as the scope of the agreement (should it cover all sorts of subsidy?) and the definitions of “overfishing” and “overfished stocks” (with environmentalists complaining they rely on vague, unscientific language). And should a ban on subsidies apply just to individual vessels engaged in overfishing, or to the operators of fleets (since a cash subsidy for fuel to an innocent vessel is fungible)? Then there is the handling of “unassessed” fish stocks, ie, those not sufficiently surveyed to be judged sustainable or not, which by some estimates account for more than 70% of the global catch, and many of which are believed to be severely overfished. Even the definition of “fish” has proved contentious.
But the issue that has probably generated the most heat is that of “Special and Differential Treatment” (SDT) for poorer countries—ie, exemptions. It has always been accepted that some such carve-outs would be needed. It is even included in the wording of the missed SDG, and is one of the “pillars” of the talks. But if too much is excluded from the agreement it will become meaningless. China for example wants SDT and counts itself a “developing country. It is by far the most important fishing nation, with the largest fleet, accounting for about one-fifth of the global catch. It is also the world’s biggest exporter of fish and, predictably, the biggest subsidiser. But other countries too—in particular, India, another big fishing country, but one with a fleet confined largely, unlike China’s, to its own waters—have also argued hard for big exemptions. And India is pushing for a weak dispute-settlement mechanism. Rich countries, too, subsidise their fishing industries and, as the issue’s curious prominence in the fraught Brexit negotiations show, it is one where nationalist and protectionist sentiments run deep.
So, despite the disappointment, few who have followed the talks are surprised by the failure to meet the deadline. Mr Wills insisted on an optimistic take, preparing to circulate a new draft and chair resumed negotiations next month. Even some outside observers, like Isabel Jarrett, manager of the programme to end harmful fisheries subsidies at the Pew Charitable Trusts, point to progress, saying the parties “are closer than they have ever been” to success. Getting them to the finishing line may require the pressure of a WTO ministerial meeting, and even then, the outcome might be an agreement riddled with loopholes. Meanwhile, as Mr Wills pointed out, that debt keeps getting bigger.
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