Subsidies and the sustainability of fisheries: What's the catch?

15 May 2014

Fish and fisheries products are one of the most traded food commodities in the world.  Trade flows including fish products are all over the world going from the source of origin through production, and processing to distribution and the consumers.  Experts often point to the global ramifications of a fish shortage in Africa arguing that a depletion of the ecosystems in the continent would seriously affect global fish trade.

In fact global fish stocks are already in a dire state. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 52 per cent of fish stocks are fully exploited with no room for further expansion. The United Nations warned that without fundamental restructuring of the fishing industry oceans could be fishless by 2050. 

The trade in fishery products is vital to the economic development of regions such as West Africa where for example, fisheries is an important source of foreign exchange. In addition to generating revenue to governments, fisheries resources play an important role in providing jobs and meeting nutritional needs of populations especially those with low purchasing power. However this potential needs to be placed within the broader context of the challenges facing sustainable fisheries trade.

Fisheries subsidies for example have contributed to the issue of overcapacity and overfishing. This entails  financial transfers, direct or indirect, from governments to the fishing sector, which help the sector make more profit than it would do otherwise.  

The Doha Ministerial Conference launched negotiations to clarify and improve WTO disciplines on fisheries subsidies, and at the Hong Kong Ministerial Conference in 2005 there was broad agreement on strengthening those disciplines, including through the prohibition of certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing. During the WTO ninth ministerial conference in Bali last year, the Friends of Fish group, which include Argentina, Australia, Chile, Colombia, Costs Rica, Ecuador, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Peru the Philippines and the Unites States , pledged to refrain from introducing new, or expanding existing, subsidies that contribute to overfishing or overcapacity.  Those that are however reluctant include the People’s Republic of China, Indonesia, Japan and the Republic of Korea.  The EU’s position remains somehow unclear – they are not part of the Friends of the Fish group at the WTO – despite being among the top three global subsidisers, along with China and Japan.

So what are the key issues for the future development of fish trade policy?  How to integrate fisheries at the forefront of the post 2015 development agenda? What does the recent EU Common Fisheries Policy involve?

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