The Hongkong Mandate of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has included fisheries subsidies into the current negotiation cycle. The Director General of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Steiner, explains that this is the first time a negotiation mandate set an environmental objective: to reduce global overfishing. Overfishing is recognised as a single most-important reason for the sorry state of marine ecosystems and the loss of productivity and negative effects on the fishing communities. It is largely driven by subsidies governments dish out to the fishing sector, estimated by the World Bank at a whooping US$ 35 billion/year. The World Bank also estimates that the global fishing sector looses annually about US$ 50 billion worth of fish and fishery products because of ecosystem destruction resulting from overfishing. That puts many livelihoods in developing countries at risk.
Rashid Sumaila, Director of the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada explains that basically fishing subsidies are payments from the government to the fishing sector and allow even otherwise economically unviable fisheries to continue.
There is already agreement that some subsidies must stop: support to fleet expansion, fuel price reduction, labour cost reductions and anything else that enhances already widespread catching overcapacity.
There is also agreement that some subsidies may be legitimate: increasing safety and rescue at sea, innovation that helps increase the value of the catch and reduce by-catch.
Moreover, the rules should apply in differentiated ways to developing and industrialised countries so that certain support still acceptable in developing countries would not be allowed in industrialised countries.
Pascal Lamy, at the head of the World Trade Organization clearly states that "a large part of our future lies in the oceans"; thus tackling fisheries subsidies is a matter of great urgency.
See the UNEP video explaning the issues in greater detail.