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Overfishing Calls for Concrete Actions

Our oceans and fish stocks—and the populations that depend on them—all suffer from the consequences of overfishing. We share a glimpse of the current WTO push to end harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020.

By Tristan Irschlinger on May 29, 2019

Our oceans and fish stocks—and the populations that depend on them—all suffer from the consequences of overfishing.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 33 per cent of the world's assessed fish stocks are considered overexploited, while 60 per cent are exploited at their maximum sustainable level. Perhaps even more worrying, despite a growing global awareness of the problem, the trend is not improving. The share of overexploited stocks is steadily increasing: it has tripled since the 1970s.

The share of overexploited fish stocks has tripled since the 1970s.

In addition to serious environmental impacts, there are social, economic and even cultural costs to this alarming trend. Of course, many fisheries are also well-managed, but as we witness this general decline of the health of fish stocks, the time has come for concrete actions.

Fisheries subsidies are a major contributing factor. By artificially reducing the costs of fishing, capacity- and effort-enhancing fisheries subsidies allow vessels to take ever more fish on longer trips, ever further from land. Unfortunately, the amount of fish in the ocean does not extend in the same way. That is why the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) has chosen to support the current World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations to effectively discipline harmful fisheries subsidies, in support of Sustainable Development Goal target 14.6. Along with the Pew Charitable Trusts, IISD is delivering analysis and convening support to WTO members to help them reach their goal of an agreement on fisheries subsidies by December 2019.

In parallel with activities in Geneva to support and inform the negotiating process more directly, a series of workshops have taken the conversation to the negotiators’ home regions. In a non-negotiating setting, we have brought together policy-makers, experts and stakeholders from academia, the fisheries sector and civil society for an in-depth discussion of WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations. Like the Caribbean and Latin American workshops, our recent session in Senegal on West African issues offered invaluable insights, illustrating the spectrum of concerns these negotiations raise for the region.

Senegal workshop
Policy makers, academics, and fisheries sector and civil society experts gathered in Dakar, Senegal for an in-depth discussion of WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations and their implications for West Africa.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, overfished stocks, as well as overfishing and overcapacity more broadly all pose real challenges in West Africa. The magnitude of fishing by foreign fleets in West African waters and the fundamental importance of artisanal fishing for people in the region (with a special nuance for women active in the processing sector) highlight both the relevance of WTO negotiations and the variety of issues at play. The event also offered stakeholders two new tools for considering subsidy reform: a draft case study commissioned by IISD on the Sardinella fishery off the coast of West Africa gave participants a real-world model of the possible impacts of new WTO rules, while an interactive toolkit developed by Pew let attendees consider the larger biological and economic implications of prohibitions being negotiated at the WTO.

Throughout the workshop, the message crystalized that something must change because the current situation is not tenable over the long term. The WTO negotiations are a real opportunity to not only rethink industrial and artisanal fisheries subsidies, but to take meaningful action that renews the health of our oceans and supports the livelihoods of the fishing communities and populations who depend on them.

Insight details