The WTO fisheries negotiations: An opportunity for marine biodiversity

14 October 2010

The WTO fisheries negotiations are often said to provide the single greatest opportunity for the environment under the faltering Doha Round. The focus is on cutting the subsidies that allow for the overexploitation of fisheries, and thus on safeguarding the resource itself and the significant economic and livelihood gains this would bring for people around the world and in developing countries in particular. In addition, the phase-out of destructive subsidies would open up the possibility of re-channelling subsidies into carefully crafted management schemes, as well as into conservation initiatives such as Marine Protected Areas. As such, the benefits for ocean biodiversity as a whole could be rich and generate positive outcomes for generations to come.

Subsidies in the fisheries sector have been, and continue to be applied in a number of different ways and for a number of objectives. For example, direct support for vessel building has played an important role in developing the global fishing industry. There is clear evidence that these subsidies can cause market distortions and encourage overcapacity, ultimately contributing to the depletion of fish stocks. On the other hand, subsidies to resource management or capacity reduction might have positive effects on trade, natural resources and biodiversity. The same holds true for support measures for monitoring, control, and surveillance of illegal fishing activities. Still other subsidies are designed to assist small-scale and artisanal fishing communities that rely on fishing activities for their livelihood and food security.

Overfishing has led to negative effects on marine ecosystems as a whole. Many of the prized top predators – such as tuna and sword fish – are keystone species that strongly affect the balance of the ecosystem. As these larger fish are being fished out, the world fleets have turned to the smaller fish that they feed on, so called forage fish. A response, clearly visible on a global scale, is the increase in jellyfish as the number of fish decline.  Furthermore, bottom trawling, the use of large-scale driftnets and other destructive fishing practices lead to destruction of marine habitats with negative effects that reach far beyond the target species.

Currently, marine areas are far less protected than terrestrial ecosystems – only 0.8 percent of the high seas are protected, while the figure is 6 percent for territorial waters. In 1995, Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopted the Jakarta Mandate on Marine and Coastal Biodiversity, staking out a road towards addressing the major threats to marine biodiversity, including through better and more effective implementation of integrated marine and coastal area management in the context of the ecosystem approach. In 2002, Parties agreed to a target to significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010 and to develop representative networks of marine protected areas (MPAs) by 2012. So far, governments are far from being on track, and will have a heavy agenda when they meet at COP-10 in Nagoya, seeking ways to turn this trend around.

In these efforts, negotiations under the Doha mandate can help promote some of the same overarching goals. In the rules negotiations, the focus is on cutting subsidies that lead to overfishing. The draft text, which has been under discussion since late 2007, would ban a long list of subsidies that boost fishing capacity or create other incentives to fish. Some subsidies would be permissible for all countries, including payments aimed at reducing the fishing capacity and environmental impact of fishing.

This is where the link to fishery management schemes comes in. In order to provide the subsidies still allowed, countries would have to show that they have effective, international-standard management systems in place. In addition, developing countries would be allowed to provide certain otherwise forbidden subsidies under Special & Differential treatment if they have effective fishery management schemes in place. From a biodiversity perspective, the important issue will be that the management schemes are effective and work in practice, without being too complex and expensive.

In the current fisheries draft under discussion, a number of requirements with regards to fisheries management systems are fleshed out. The systems should be based on internationally-recognised best practices, such as the UN Fish Stocks Agreement for the implementation of the provisions of the Law of the Sea relating to conservation and management of straddling fish stocks. The management measures should include, inter alia: regular science-based stock assessment; capacity and effort management measures; vessel registries; and the establishment and allocation of fishing rights. The systems would be notified to and reviewed by a UN FAO body.

Funds going towards the establishment and maintenance of MPAs are not considered a subsidy in the current draft text. They are generally handled by ministries other than those disbursing the more traditional fisheries subsidies or handling the negotiations at the WTO. Therefore, cutting traditional subsidies would not imply automatic rechanneling into measures safeguarding marine biodiversity.  When discussing the subsidies currently exempted from cuts, such as early retirement and retraining programmes, possible links could be made to new initiatives and jobs related to the establishment and maintenance of MPAs and related economic activities such as coastal and marine ecotourism.

In addition, when considering subsidies in the context of small and artisanal fishers – often engaged in traditional fishing practices and providing important food security, livelihoods and incomes – potential biodiversity benefits deriving from their sustainable use of the resource should be kept in mind.

Malena Sell is Senior Programme Officer at the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development.

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