How US influence can end harmful fisheries subsidies

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Two years ago today, nations took a significant step toward improving ocean health when they reached a historic World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement to curb harmful fisheries subsidies.

Now, they have an opportunity to further limit the damaging payments that governments give to their commercial fishing fleets.

And they should take it.

The United States and other nations have worked for more than two decades through the WTO to reduce the damage caused by harmful types of fisheries subsidies. 

The U.S. was the fourth country to ratify the 2022 agreement, and since then, China, the European Union, Japan and South Korea — governments which, along with the U.S., account for 58 percent of all subsidies distributed globally — have also ratified the agreement, showing their commitment and willingness to cooperate and find solutions to this global problem.

But why limit fisheries subsidies in the first place? Because some subsidies allow large-scale fishing operations to deplete fish populations at an alarming rate. 

Globally, nations spend $22 billion a year on subsidies paid mostly to industrial fishing fleets to artificially lower the cost of fuel and vessel construction. These subsidies make it possible for large vessels to fish farther out to sea and for longer periods of time — ultimately catching more fish than is sustainable, according to the most recent research available in Marine Policy.

The world needs healthy fish populations, not populations depleted by overfishing. A thriving ocean underpins strong economies and coastal communities not only in the United States but also across the globe. 

Fish provide 17 percent of the world’s animal protein and support 600 million livelihoods, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization said in 2022. And, according to a 2020 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report, U.S. commercial and recreational saltwater fishing supports 1.7 million jobs.

Fortunately, once the binding WTO agreement — adopted by nations on June 17, 2022 — is ratified by enough countries that it enters into force, it will help curtail overfishing by limiting subsidies used in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, subsidies for fishing on overfished stocks and subsidies to vessels fishing on the unregulated high seas. As of the end of May, 76 of the required 110 countries had ratified the agreement.

But while the 2022 agreement will substantially reduce harmful subsidies, it does not address subsidies that encourage fleets to fish in other countries’ waters. Similarly, the agreement fails to prevent overfishing and overcapacity, which is a fleet’s ability to harvest more fish than is sustainable within a nation’s own waters. WTO members have been negotiating rules to address these problems for the past two years with the aim of adding them to the existing agreement.

So U.S. leadership on fisheries subsidies, essential in getting the agreement adopted in 2022, must continue.

U.S. trade representative Katherine Tai has a significant opportunity to capitalize on the negotiations progress made at the WTO’s 13th Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi earlier this year — she should now push for countries to reach a final deal on the proposed new rules as soon as possible. 

Adding these remaining provisions to the existing agreement would create a robust framework that would effectively reign in harmful fisheries subsidies — to benefit not only U.S. fishing and seafood industries but also coastal economies around the world. The upcoming WTO General Council meeting, which begins July 22, is the next best opportunity to conclude negotiations.

Consistent U.S. leadership was key to creating the momentum and pressure necessary for sealing the deal on the 2022 WTO agreement, and it can be a critical driving force for getting the new rules over the finish line. That’s the winning path toward improving the sustainability of the world’s fish populations — and boosting the communities at home and abroad that depend on them.

Ernesto Fernández Monge and Megan Jungwiwattanaporn work on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ environmental policy team.

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