Op-ed: It’s time to stop subsidizing overfishing

John Burton is the chief executive officer of World Wise Foods and Tom Pickerell, the executive director of the Global Tuna Alliance

John Burton is the chief executive officer of World Wise Foods and Tom Pickerell is the executive director of the Global Tuna Alliance.

It should be self-evident that paying to destroy one of the world’s most-important and -valuable natural resources is a bad idea: bad for business, bad for people, and bad for our planet. Yet that is exactly what many governments are doing, year after year, by subsidizing harmful and even illegal fishing that threatens fish stocks, livelihoods, and food security across the globe.

In 2015, world governments pledged to put an end to these damaging subsidies by 2020 through a negotiation process at the World Trade Organization. So why is USD 22 billion (EUR 20.6 billion) a year still being channeled into subsidies that contribute to overfishing and hurt coastal communities? The 2020 deadline – enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal 14 Target 6 – has long passed; It is high time that global leaders turn their commitments into action and deliver on their promises.

The WTO fisheries subsidies talks are at a critical juncture. After a frustrating spate of missed deadlines, WTO members have a draft treaty text on the table and are closer than ever before to reaching an agreement. They now have the opportunity to finally reach and announce a robust agreement to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies at the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference, which starts in Geneva on 12 June. This is not a niche issue. Securing and implementing this global deal is one of the single-greatest collective actions the world can take to improve the health of the ocean and the well-being of communities who depend on it.

As the CEO of World Wise Foods and executive director of the Global Tuna Alliance (GTA), we are committed to achieving a tuna industry – and broader fishing sector – that meets the highest standards of environmental and social responsibility. Collectively, GTA member companies make up the world’s biggest network of seafood wholesalers and suppliers, employing 1.2 million people in 116 countries, and with a combined annual turnover of more than USD 255 billion (EUR 239 billion). We take our obligations to our customers, our colleagues in the fishing industry, and our environment very seriously, which is why supporting an end to harmful subsidies is a central part GTA’s global strategy and a priority for World Wise Foods. It’s essential for our business, and it’s the right thing to do.

There are three compelling reasons why stopping these subsidies makes good business sense. First, our customers are increasingly calling for greater sustainability and traceability of seafood. That’s why one of our top concerns is ensuring that all the fish we sell is caught legally and in ways that respect both the environment and the human rights of workers in the fishing industry, so that people can choose our products with confidence.

Second, subsidies make it more difficult to meet our goal of making the tuna sector more sustainable and improving the health of the ocean. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that more than one-third of the world’s marine fish stocks are exploited beyond sustainable levels, and an additional 60 percent are fully exploited, including many important tuna stocks. As harmful fisheries subsidies are one of the key drivers of overfishing and exacerbate illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing – two of the biggest risks to ocean health – they threaten the long-term viability of the global seafood supply chains that our businesses rely on.

Third, subsidizing practices that deplete fish stocks hurts coastal communities by jeopardizing the healthy local fish populations they need for food and livelihoods. These subsidies overwhelmingly favor large, distant-water fishing fleets and make it harder for local fishers to compete. We believe it is particularly vital to ban all subsidies going to operators engaged in IUU fishing, a practice frequently linked to forced labor and other human rights abuses.

Continuing with these harmful subsidies is simply not good business. Instead of funding overfishing, governments should redirect taxpayer dollars toward ocean biodiversity monitoring, as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation projects that provide sustainable jobs to communities disproportionately impacted by overfishing. That’s another reason WTO members need to strike a deal to end harmful fisheries subsidies this year and start putting money back into making fisheries and coastal communities healthy again.

We are far from alone in calling for this. The secretary-general of the International Chamber of Commerce, John Denton, has also championed ending harmful fisheries subsidies due to the clear human, environmental, and economic case for action. Hundreds of scientists have united to urge the WTO to deliver on this commitment to safeguard food and livelihoods. And the secretary-general of the UN, Antonio Guterres, made a rare intervention in WTO affairs by personally asking world leaders to push for an agreement to end damaging fishing subsidies.

WTO members have been negotiating this deal for more than two decades. That’s long enough. They need to honor their mandate, meet the commitments set out in SDG 14.6, and deliver an ambitious agreement at the 12th Ministerial Conference this June.

There is no way to justify using taxpayers’ money to destroy precious marine biodiversity. It’s time to stop funding overfishing and start healing the ocean.

Photo courtesy of Global Tuna Alliance


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