Phasing out harmful fisheries subsidies has been on the agenda of the World Trade Organization (WTO) since 20 years. Doing so at long last by 2020 is target 6 of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 "Life under Water" adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015. It's urgent as harmful subsidies are currently estimated at about USD 20.5 per year (1) fuelling overfishing and all kinds of illicit practices and affecting other SDGs negatively.

Harmful subsidies are all capacity enhancing payments and privileges. Fuel subsidies are the most common. They allow industrial fishing vessels to ply the ocean and catch resources in the waters of coastal states or the high seas when most of these activities would not be economically viable on their own, thus fuelling overfishing. The top five in dishing out harmful subsidies are China, the European Union, the US, Korea and Japan.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has stated in its 2020 report on the status of world fisheries and aquaculture that 34% of the assessed fish resources are overfished (2), a proportion that has been steadily increasing since the 1970s, when it was only around 10%. Only 6% of wild resources are not yet fully exploited. It is therefore high time to improve the recovery and management of resources to reverse the decline of landings from the wild since the mid 90s and lay the foundations for increased production on a stable and sustainable basis to meet demand of a growing human population. This is especially important for people with low income who rely on subsistence gleaning in the wild and cheap sources of fish compared to other sources of protein and essential micro-nutrients.

Fish make up more than 17% of all animal protein we consume globally. In the least-developed countries, this number jumps to 26%. In some coastal communities, fish can even make up 80% of animal protein consumed. As our global population increases and demand for food multiplies, preserving the ocean’s ability to feed people is vital.

Wealthy countries account for about 60% of global fisheries subsidies, leaving many other fishing-dependent communities struggling to compete with subsidized rivals, often risking their lives for smaller and smaller catches. Ending these harmful subsidies will help safeguard the billions who rely on thriving fish stocks for survival and nutrition.

Positive or neutral subsidies are expenditures for management, research, enforcement of marine protected areas and safety at sea. But these important areas of ocean governance account for only about 40% of the global total. So, the case for using current harmful subsidies for resources recovery, protection, research and other productive ends is strong and timely.

Mundus maris has campaigned throughout the year 2020 together with 173 other civil society organisations to get the WTO to end harmful subsidies and deliver on the promise of SDG 14.6. During the last round of negotiations we posted 25 arguments in favour of making the right decision in our social media, one each day. We are disappointed that the EU reopened the new European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) to funding new fishing vessels, thus setting a deleterious precedent against the grain of the WTO negotiations and the 2006 prohibition by law.

The WTO missed the deadline, but the 164 negotiating parties have felt the pressure and heard the many good arguments for doing what is within their mandate and power. We want them to act soonest at least in 2021 to redirect funds from harm to help.

(1) U. Rashid Sumaila, Daniel Skerritt, Anna Schuhbauer, Naazia Ebrahim, Yang Li, Hong Sik Kim, Tabitha Grace Mallory, Vicky W.L. Lam and Daniel Pauly (2019). Updated estimates and analysis of global fisheries subsidies. Marine Policy, 109:103695

(2) FAO (2020). State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020. Rome, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, SOFIA 2020