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The Sustainable Development Goal on the ocean and seas, SDG 14, explicitly calls for the elimination of subsidies that contribute to overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing by 2020.

If only a portion of the approximately US$18 billion spent on harmful subsidies were spent instead on the implementation of SDG 14 targets, it would make an enormous difference for the ocean.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) multilateral trade regime is the best placed to adopt the necessary rules for phasing out harmful fisheries subsidies.

The Sustainable Development Goal on the ocean and seas, SDG 14, explicitly calls for the elimination of subsidies that contribute to overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing by 2020. And rightly so: it is estimated that taxpayers spend some US$30 billion a year on fisheries subsidies around the world, 60% of which (approximately US$18 billion) directly encourages unsustainable, destructive and even illegal practices.[1] In 2017, it is unconscionable that we continue to finance destructive, industrial fishing fleets to the detriment of small-scale artisanal fishers and consumers alike.

The subsidies text reads:

“By 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing, and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiation.” (SDG 14, Target 14.6)

The question is whether governments have the resolve to put these words into action on time.

We are cautiously optimistic. A UN High-level Ocean Conference will be held 5-9 June 2017 with the aim of supporting implementation of SDG 14. Unlike other SDGs, SDG 14 has no single “home” agency within the UN system. At the initiative of Fiji and Sweden, the Conference – and hopefully others to follow – will serve to track progress.

At a recent preparatory session for the Conference, UN Member States took collective ownership of the process and demonstrated their willingness to embrace action to protect the global ocean.

To be sure, implementing SDG 14 is no small task: with 10 targets, some to be reached within the next three years, a Herculean effort will be required. Targets include (amongst other things): preventing and significantly reducing marine pollution; sustainably managing and protecting marine and coastal ecosystems; minimizing and addressing the impacts of ocean acidification; dealing with IUU and destructive fishing; setting aside protected areas; and perhaps most critically of all, prohibiting harmful fisheries subsidies.

Why is the fisheries subsidies target especially important? Because it addresses the premier example of governments purposefully and willingly continuing to spend money to achieve the exact opposite of what SDG 14 intends.

Why is the fisheries subsidies target especially important? Because it addresses the premier example of governments purposefully and willingly continuing to spend money to achieve the exact opposite of what SDG 14 intends. Many countries talk about the “blue economy.” But subsidizing fishing overcapacity and destructive fishing practices is just the opposite. In its assessment of fisheries economics, the World Bank talks of “sunken billions.”[2]

The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), together with the UN Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (DOALOS) and the Office of the President of the General Assembly have proposed – among other things – that the Conference adopt a “Call for Action” in the form of a declaration. Throughout the preparatory meeting, governments expressed their appetite for such a declaration, committing them, collectively, to put SDG 14 and ocean health high on their action list. The co-facilitators of the session, Ambassadors and Permanent Representatives of Singapore and Portugal, are expected to produce a “zero draft” in early March, and further consultations will take place in the following weeks.

At the same time, in a Background Note[3] issued for the preparatory session, the UN Secretary-General identified finance as one of the corner-stones for achieving the targets of SDG 14:

“Sustained financing to support ocean-related activities, including capacity-building initiatives […] remains a challenge in many of the target areas of SDG 14 […] New and innovative ways of financing require consideration.” In this regard, he noted “it was suggested that the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in its next phase (2018-22), should aim to explicitly provide financial support to developing countries for technical assistance and capacity-building to help them incorporate new rules on fisheries subsidies into relevant and regional policy and legislation, and build capacity for monitoring, compliance and enforcement.”

There is an obvious source of funding to meet these needs. If only a portion of the US$18 billion spent on harmful subsidies were spent instead on the implementation of SDG 14 targets, it would make an enormous difference for the ocean. Building on the Secretary-General’s Background Note, what if a “Blue Fund” or some other mechanism were set up for governments to reallocate money for positive incentives?

The tide is turning. Several delegations to the preparatory meeting made reference to the problem of harmful subsidies. The statement by the EU was particularly noteworthy given the global importance of its fishing fleet; it reflects recent changes in its Common Fisheries Policy:

“The EU and its Member States also recognise that harmful subsidies continue to promote overcapacity and overfishing and contribute to IUU fishing. Thus, we stress that in the Call for Action we should urge States to honour their commitment under Agenda 2030 to swiftly conclude a multilateral WTO agreement on the prohibition of such subsidies”[4]

The next ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) will take place in December 2017, six months after the UN Ocean Conference adopts its “Call for Action” in June. The WTO multilateral trade regime is the best placed to adopt the necessary rules for phasing out harmful fisheries subsidies.

But, compared to seasoned diplomats working on ocean issues at the UN, trade negotiators serving at the WTO are a different kettle of fish. It will require a concerted push for the WTO to sit up and take notice.

This is a fight worth having. The ocean is the origin and basis of all life on our blue planet. Every second breath of air we inhale comes from the ocean. And it provides food and livelihoods for one billion people.

If the ocean dies, so do we.

Directors of the Varda Group, Rémi Parmentier (Twitter: @RemiParmentier) and Kelly Rigg (Twitter: @KellyRigg) have been Ocean Advocates for 40 years. Rémi participated in the recent preparatory meeting for the UN conference with support from the Tara Foundation.

[1] Global Fisheries Subsidies – An Updated Estimate, Sumaila et al, in Marine Policy, 2016.

[2] The Sunken Billions Revisited: Progress and Challenges in Global Marine Fisheries, The World Bank Group; 2017.

[3] Background Note of the UN Secretary-General for the preparatory process of the UN Conference to Support the Implementation of SDG 14.

[4] Statement on behalf of the European Union and its Member States, 15-16 February 2017, (pm).


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