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A fish market in Guinea
Image: Getty Images/D. Kitwood

WTO still scrambling for global fishing rules

Timothy Rooks
October 8, 2019

The World Trade Organization is increasingly under pressure to come up with a global scheme to curb fisheries subsidies. Now a nonagenarian is leading the fight to stop what he calls a "harmful" practice.


A short video slowly making the rounds on social media starts out with none than 93-year-old David Attenborough, a filmmaker famous for his luscious documentaries on nature. It is classic Attenborough with his distinctive, calm voice backed up with dramatic music and amazing underwater footage of whales, dolphins and coral reefs.

But this isn't a new nature film; it is a call for help. And the main issue isn't global warming or the mountains of plastic in our oceans, it is government subsidies.

"Government subsidies are keeping fishing boats fishing even when there are too few fish left for fishing to be profitable," said Attenborough in the video. "A global deal to end harmful fisheries subsidies is the next vital step in the restoration of our oceans to their former abundance and diversity."

The video, produced in cooperation with NGOs Friends of Ocean Action, the World Economic Forum and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), is a digital message being sent to governments around the world and decision makers in Geneva at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Previously the WTO has come up with global rules for government subsidies for industry and farming. The video is meant to add pressure to reach another deal by the end of this year on global fishing rules, which is one of the UN's official Sustainable Development Goals. It also comes during an important round of negotiations when time seems to be running out.

A big catch

Today governments around the world cough up around $22 billion (€20 billion) of public money for fisheries subsidies. These unchecked transactions in turn have often led to overfishing and threaten fish stocks and jobs.

"It is estimated that 85% of governments' fisheries subsidies benefit large industrial fleets, thereby distorting markets to the detriment of small-scale artisanal fishing companies. Small-scale fisheries employ 90% of all fishers yet account for 30% of the catch in marine fisheries," pointed out a statement from the groups behind the video.

Earlier this year Japan caused a global outcry by restarting commercial whaling
Earlier this year Japan caused a global outcry by restarting commercial whalingImage: Reuters/I. Kato

According to Friends of Ocean Action, 3 billion people depend on healthy oceans for food and jobs. "If the ocean was an economy, it would be the seventh-largest in the world." Adding that almost 90% of ocean fish stocks "are now fully exploited, overexploited or depleted."

To get the whole picture, the group also has an eye on plastic pollution, ending illegal and unregulated fishing, and decarbonizing the shipping sector. It is a long list; still they place a big part of the blame on unregulated government subsidies.

A message of hope

But there is more than a glimmer of hope in the message. Ocean recovery is possible. "All is not lost. We can turn this around right now," said Attenborough while suggesting that healthy oceans can be achieved with time and careful planning. Seabeds and fish stocks can recover through sustainable fishing and continue to feed the billions who depend on it.

Improved management of the oceans can also bring big economic gains for the seafood industry besides boosting food security. Stakeholders — big and small — from around the world have a say.

But personal responsibility has its limits, and money talks. Peter Thomson, the UN Secretary General's special envoy for the ocean, and co-chair of the Friends of Ocean Action, has an answer to that. He has suggested that the billion in current subsidies should be used "in building the resilience of coastal communities."

This would allow those hit the hardest to see other possibilities to endless, unaccountable fishing. Attenborough takes a more sentimental approach to convince people to help oceans once again become "vibrant, abundant and productive" by simply calling it "your ocean" in his convincing, wise manner.

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