WTO inaction risks undermining Ocean Sustainable Development Goal

The Global Ocean Commission regrets that the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference held last week in Nairobi, Kenya, has not responded to a recently adopted critical target of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: the elimination of harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020.


Countries spend $30 billion a year on fisheries subsidies, 60% of which directly encourages unsustainable, destructive, or even illegal practices. The resulting market distortion is a major factor behind the chronic mismanagement of the world’s fisheries, which the World Bank calculates to have cost the global economy $83 billion in 2012.
Subsidies to the fishing sector is an issue that often gets too little attention despite being of enormous importance to sustainable development.

Serious efforts by some countries that hoped to advance the issue in Nairobi deserve praise. A draft decision put forward by the African-Caribbean-Pacific (ACP) group proposed the establishment of a work program which would aim at prohibiting subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported, or unregulated (IUU) fishing and those that affect already overfished stocks. Discussions also considered the reinforcement of WTO reporting and transparency procedures. In the attempt to gather political support for action on fisheries subsidies, Ministers from 28 countries headed by New Zealand issued a joint statement on Thursday 17 December.

But, despite being initiatives that just ensured bare minimums, they faced the opposition namely from the EU, China and India which lead to the failure of the 10th WTO Ministerial Conference to move forward on fisheries subsidies.

The Global Ocean Commission is concerned that, by not regulating fisheries subsidies, the WTO is failing to comply with the recently adopted UN Global Goals, and concretely SDG 14 on the ocean that specifically commits to the elimination, by no later than 2020, of fisheries subsidies contributing to overcapacity and overfishing (Target 14.6).

Beyond environmental concerns, fisheries subsidies raise urgent questions of equity and justice. Food security is at stake when poor coastal communities see their fish stocks diminishing as a consequence of the activities of subsidized distant-fishing vessels from rich countries.

This week’s WTO Ministerial Conference was an opportunity for the multilateral trade regime to echo and put in practice the international community’s sustainable development and ocean governance ambitions. The Global Ocean Commission regrets that the opportunity was missed and warns that there will be very little time left to comply with SDG 14 next time the WTO hold a ministerial conference.