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Op-Ed Global Development

Reeling in a deal to save the ocean

Auckland, New Zealand

For years, WTO members have failed to forge an agreement to limit fishing subsidies, thereby allowing the continuation of ecologically devastating fishing operations that would otherwise be economically unviable. Now an agreement is within reach – if the political will is there to deliver it. Governments have given their word that they will curb destructive fisheries subsidies. This week’s 12th Ministerial Conference in Geneva (30 Nov.-3 Dec.) will test the credibility of that pledge.

By Helen Clark, Arancha González, Susana Malcorra, and James Michel

Clark González Malcorra Michel

AUCKLAND/MADRID/VICTORIA/ANSE ROYALE: The ocean covers more than 70% of our planet’s surface, produces half of the oxygen we breathe, feeds billions of people, and provides hundreds of millions of jobs. It also plays a major role in mitigating climate change: over 80% of the global carbon cycle passes through the ocean. But this precious natural resource is not invincible. Despite all the benefits it affords us, the ocean today faces unprecedented man-made crises that threaten its health and its ability to sustain life on Earth.

The greatest threat to marine biodiversity is overfishing. More than one-third of global fish stocks are overfished and a further 60% are fully fished. Each year, governments around the world encourage overfishing by providing $22 billion in harmful fisheries subsidies. Although these subsidies are designed to help support coastal communities, they instead prop up unsustainable and unprofitable fishing activity, depleting the very resource on which local populations’ livelihoods depend.

This problem is not new. In fact, the World Trade Organization’s members have been trying to negotiate a deal to curb these damaging payments since 2001. World leaders reiterated their commitment to tackling the issue when they agreed in 2015 to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Under SDG 14, which aims to put a healthy ocean at the heart of the global sustainable-development agenda, leaders promised by 2020 to reach an agreement at the WTO that would reduce fisheries subsidies. But they missed the deadline, as negotiations slowed during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research shows that if WTO members were to eliminate all harmful fisheries subsidies – the most ambitious scenario – global fish biomass could increase by 12.5% by 2050. That’s an additional 35 million metric tons of fish, or more than four times North America’s annual fish consumption in 2017. And this is a conservative estimate. Removing destructive subsidies really will mean more fish in the sea.

The aim is not to remove support from fishing communities, but rather to redirect it in a more meaningful and less damaging way. Even if a deal does not eliminate all harmful subsidies, it would create a global framework of accountability and transparency for subsidy programs. That, in turn, would spur dialogue between governments, fishing communities, and other stakeholders to spur the development of redesigned policies that better support fisherfolk while protecting our global commons.

Moreover, an agreement is within reach – if the political will is there to deliver it. The most recent lapse of the negotiations resulted from differences over how to structure flexibility in subsidy regimes for developing countries, as well as how to define and enforce rules on illegal fishing and sustainable stocks. But after numerous proposals and discussions, the comprehensive draft now on the table combines measures to curb harmful subsidies with specific exceptions for developing countries.

With the start of the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference in Geneva just days away, now is the moment for a deal. Failure to conclude one would not only harm the ocean and the livelihoods of those who depend upon it, but also would diminish the global rules-based system and damage the pursuit of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In contrast, ending harmful fisheries subsidies would reduce the cumulative pressures on the ocean and increase its resilience in the face of climate change.

In the wake of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, governments must demonstrate their willingness to use every tool at their disposal to tackle the climate crisis. The stakes at the upcoming WTO Ministerial Conference have perhaps never been higher. The future of multilateral trade cooperation is at risk; but, above all, jobs, food security, and the health of our global commons are on the line.

That is why 33 former government leaders and ministers from around the world have joined forces with nearly 400 scientists in urging WTO members to “harness their political mandate to protect the health of the ocean and the well-being of society.”

Governments have given their word that they will curb destructive fisheries subsidies. Next week’s meeting in Geneva will test the credibility of that pledge.

- Helen Clark is a former prime minister of New Zealand (1999-2008). Arancha González is a former foreign minister of Spain (2020-21). Susana Malcorra is a former foreign minister of Argentina (2015-17). James Michel is a former president of the Republic of Seychelles (2004-2016).

The 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) will take place from 30 November to 3 December 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland. Ministers from across the world will have the opportunity to review the functioning of the multilateral trading system, to deliver prepared statements and to take action on the future work of the WTO.

The Ministerial Conference, which is attended by trade ministers and other senior officials from the organization’s 164 members, is the highest decision-making body of the WTO. Under the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the WTO, the Ministerial Conference is to meet at least once every two years.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.