By Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
GENEVA – It is not often that trade negotiators get a chance simultaneously to protect vulnerable people and their livelihoods, promote healthier oceans, and fulfill one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. But that is exactly the opportunity awaiting trade ministers as they gather at the World Trade Organization this week to discuss new global rules limiting government support for the fishing industry.
These public subsidies incentivize overfishing, and WTO members have been debating how to limit them for 20 years now. During those long two decades, global fish stocks have decreased sharply, and poor and vulnerable artisanal fishers have suffered along with ocean ecosystems.
In 2017, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned that an estimated one-third of global fish stocks were overfished, an increase from 10% in 1970 and 27% in 2000. The depletion of fish stocks threatens the food security of low-income coastal communities and the livelihoods of poor and vulnerable fishers, who must travel farther and farther from shore only to bring back smaller and smaller hauls.
Despite these disturbing findings, governments continue to disburse around $35 billion in annual fisheries subsidies, two-thirds of which go to commercial fishers. In doing so, they are keeping at sea many commercial vessels that would otherwise be economically unviable.
World leaders recognized the seriousness of the problem back in 2015 when they agreed to forge an agreement on fisheries subsidies by 2020 as part of the Sustainable Development Agenda. But while trade ministers reaffirmed this pledge in 2017, talks at the WTO have repeatedly stalled.
Over the past year, however, things have begun to turn around. Political leaders and trade ministers from around the world tell me they want to get an agreement done this year. In Geneva, the chair of these negotiations, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, has worked with WTO members to draft a negotiating text that I believe can provide the foundation for final-stage talks. But despite the political support voiced by government leaders, important divisions persist. Indeed, as matters stand, we are in danger of failing to conclude a deal before the WTO’s year-end Ministerial Conference.
This tight timetable is the reason for convening trade ministers this month. While no one expects a miracle, the meeting represents a golden opportunity to bring the negotiations within striking distance of a deal. WTO members need to conclude an agreement in time for the UN Biodiversity Conference in October, and no later than the end of November, when the WTO’s own ministerial begins. A failure to do so would jeopardize the ocean’s biodiversity and the sustainability of the fish stocks on which so many depend for food and income.
Yes, the talks are complex, because fish do not inhabit a single national territory or observe maritime boundaries. WTO negotiators must account for both the existing framework of international fisheries rules and the role of the regulatory bodies that govern many aspects of fishing around the world. They also must define how new subsidy rules would apply to far-flung fishing vessels.
Compounding the challenge is the fact that the WTO is not a fisheries management organization. Still, the WTO has a longstanding framework of rules that curb trade-distorting subsidies for industrial and agricultural goods. That is why trade ministers agreed back in 2001 to come up with similar measures to protect marine fisheries.
Although there is still work to do, the current draft negotiating text would make an important contribution to the sustainability of our oceans. For starters, it would completely ban government funding for vessels that engage in illegal fishing. According to the FAO, these activities account for 11-26 million tons of fish per year, or roughly 20% of the total global catch. The agreement would also rein in other types of subsidies that support increased fishing activity, by requiring that governments prove they have taken steps to ensure such support does not harm fish stocks.
One of the toughest issues in the negotiations is how to define and honor the original negotiating mandate guaranteeing special and differential treatment for developing countries – and especially for least-developed countries. Many of these countries rely on small-scale artisanal fishing, and they are seeking more policy space to develop their industrial fishing capabilities. But, because their fisheries management capacity is weak, they may struggle to implement new subsidy regimes as quickly and effectively as better-off members can.
Another tough issue is to ensure transparency, with requirements that a member offer notification when deploying non-harmful and non-distortionary subsidies to encourage its fishing industry. Tackling these issues will not be easy, but tackle them we must, because WTO members have pledged to protect the fisheries and ocean we all share.
By negotiating away harmful fisheries subsidies, WTO members will not just be honoring past commitments. They will also be lending momentum to other international efforts to address problems in the global commons – from climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Let’s hope that the world’s trade ministers rise to the challenge.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former finance minister and foreign minister of Nigeria, and a former managing director of the World Bank, is Director-General of the World Trade Organization.