Overfishing negatively impacts sustainable fisheries, livelihood and world fish stocks. These unsustainable practices threaten local biodiversity and food security in many places around the world. Discover what organizations in Geneva and beyond are doing to address the issue at the global level.
The Overfishing Crisis
More than 820 million people depend on fisheries and aquaculture for food, nutrition, and income (FAO, n.d.). But the ability of our fisheries to provide jobs and nutrition is being threatened by an unprecedented crisis of overfishing and improper resource management. Nearly 90% of global marine fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted (FAO, 2018). Overfishing is closely tied to bycatch — the capture of unwanted sea life while fishing for a different species — which is also serious marine threat.
Some forms of fisheries subsidies contribute to this detrimental impact. Fishing subsidies are estimated to be as high as $35 billion worldwide, of which $22 billion directly contributes to overfishing (Sumaila et al., 2019). Subsidies also foster inequality, as they disproportionately fund big business rather than small-scale and artisanal fisheries. Regulating these harmful subsidies can therefore assist in reducing unfair competition in accessing fisheries resources at sea, whilst at the same time seeking to safeguard fisheries resources, livelihoods and ecosystems.
- Overfishing | WWF
- What is a fisheries subsidy? | FAO
- Responsible fishing | Oceana
- Overfishing is a social injustice. To end it, we need to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies. | Peter Thomson (UN Special Envoy for the Ocean) | 21 November 2020
- Fisheries Subsidies Video Series | IISD | 27 May 2020
- Unsustainable fishing and hunting for bushmeat driving iconic species to extinction – IUCN Red List | IUCN | 18 July 2019
- 90% of fish stocks are used up – fisheries subsidies must stop emptying the ocean | Mukhisa Kituyi (UNCTAD Secretary-General) & Peter Thomson (UN Special Envoy for the Ocean) | 13 July 2018
- The state of world fisheries and aquaculture | FAO | 2018
- Regulating fisheries subsidies must be an integral part of the implementation of the 2030 sustainable development agenda | UNCTAD, FAO & UNEP | July 2016
- Reforming fisheries subsidies | WWF | November 2011
International Cooperation to Address Overfishing
Through the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), governments around the world have agreed that conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources is essential for sustainable development. In particular, target 14.6 acknowledges the detrimental effect of harmful subsidies and the need to eliminate them to achieve a sustainable blue economy.
Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
Target 14.6. By 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated 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 World Trade Organization fisheries subsidies negotiation
WTO Fisheries Subsidies Negotiations
At the Doha Ministerial Conference in 2001, negotiations on fisheries subsidies at the WTO were launched with a mandate to clarify and improve existing WTO rules. The adoption of the SDGs in 2015 and of a negotiating mandate in 2017 gave renewed urgency to the discussions, and left the WTO with the task of securing an agreement by 2020 on disciplines to eliminate subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and to prohibit subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, with special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries.
On the occasion of newly appointed Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s term on 1 March 2021, the Stop Funding Overfishing campaign positioned an ice sculpture of a fish in front of the WTO’s HQ.
The chair of the fisheries subsidies negotiations, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, introduced on 30 June a revised draft text. The changes proposed in the text are intended to point members towards the convergence needed to successfully conclude negotiations. A virtual meeting of ministers took place on 15 July 2021 to advance negotiations on curbing harmful fisheries subsidies. Although negotiations were expected to reach a conclusion by the end of 2021, the postponement of the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) – originally scheduled to take place in Geneva in December 2021 – has pushed these hopes back. On 24 November 2021, Amb. Santiago Wills presented a new draft agreement for Members’ consideration. According to the chair, “the current draft reflects an honest attempt to find a balance in members’ positions and I think it is the most likely way we can build consensus, without undermining our sustainability objective, and successfully conclude more than 20 years of negotiations”.
Hong KongIn Focus: A Draft WTO Agreement to Curb Harmful Fisheries Subsidies, with Alice Tipping, Lead, Sustainable Trade and Fisheries Subsidies at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).
After more than twenty years of negotiations, WTO members reached an agreement at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC12) in Geneva in June 2022. Under this new treaty, subsidies for vessels and operators engaged in illegal, unreported, or unregulated (IUU) fishing are prohibited. The agreement further bans support for fishing in overfished stocks and for fishing in unregulated high seas. Provisions on special and differential treatment are provided to allow flexibility for developing countries. Ahead of MC12, a group of 182 organizations delivered a joint statement to WTO DG Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, calling for MC12 to mark the end of subsidies that drive overfishing.
The @WTO is back! Among many amazing deliverables, and after 21 years, members concluded the multilateral Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies 🐠🐟 during #MC12. Great contribution to Ocean sustainability, fisheries, and the livelihoods of millions of people. Historic. Well done! pic.twitter.com/ng2EgWUklM
— Santiago Wills (@WillsSantiago) June 17, 2022
Since the adoption of the agreement, WTO Members met regularly under the format of “Fish Weeks” — which focused, among other things, on advancing on the content of the second wave of fisheries subsidies negotiations, focused on curbing subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, to take place in December 2023. Members are seeking to conclude an agreement at the WTO 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13) scheduled for February 2024. At the fifth Fish Week, hosted from 18 to 22 September 2023, the Chair of the Process Ambassador Einar Gunnarsson of Iceland introduced a draft text on curbing subsidies contributing to overcapacity and overfishing drawing from previous negotiating texts and proposals.
Status of Acceptance of the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies
At the 12th Ministerial Conference in June 2022, WTO members adopted the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies. For the Agreement to enter into force, two-thirds of WTO members must formally accept the Protocol of the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies by depositing an “instrument of acceptance” with the WTO.
As of September 2023, seventeen WTO members formally accepted the Protocol of the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies:
- Switzerland, 20 January 2023
- Singapore, 10 February 2023
- Seychelles, 10 March 2023
- United States, 11 April 2023
- Canada, 2 May 2023
- Iceland, 10 May 2023
- United Arabs Emirates, 16 May 2023
- European Union, 8 June 2023
- Nigeria, 12 June 2023
- Belize, 16 June 2o23
- China, 27 June 2023
- Japan, 4 July 2023
- Gabon, 12 July 2023
- Peru, 19 July 2023
- Ukraine, 17 August 2023
- Hong Kong, China, 21 August 2023
- New Zealand, 6 September 2023
Information for members on how to accept the Protocol of Amendment is available here.
Resources and news on global efforts to address overfishing
- Negotiations on fisheries subsidies | WTO
- Implementing the WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies | WTO
- Factsheet: Negotiations on fisheries subsidies | WTO
- Regulating Fisheries Subsidies | UNCTAD
- Stop funding overfishing | IISD
- Fisheries Subsidies | The South Centre
- FAO activities in relation to CITES and commercially exploited aquatic species | FAO
- OECD Review of Fisheries 2022 | Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) | May 2023
- As Ocean Oxygen Levels Dip, Fish Face an Uncertain Future | YaleEnvironment 360 | 11 May 2023
- Members start knowledge building for second wave of fisheries subsidies negotiations | WTO | 23 November 2022
- Self-Assessment Tool for the Implementation of the WTO Fisheries Subsidies Agreement | IISD | 25 October 2022
- Members brainstorm on initiating “second wave” of WTO fisheries subsidies talks | WTO | 10 October 2022
- DDG Ellard: Conclusion of Fisheries Agreement creates positive momentum at the WTO | WTO | 28 July 2022
- IISD Alice Tipping’s take on the fisheries subsidies agreement | Alice Tipping | 18 June 2022
- WTO members secure unprecedented package of trade outcomes at MC12 | WTO | 17 June 2022
- IISD Congratulates WTO Members on Achieving Fisheries Subsidies Deal | IISD | 17 June 2022
- DG receives letter from environmental groups seeking global deal on fishing subsidies | WTO | 16 May 2022
- Chair convenes “Fish Week” to close gaps in fishing subsidies negotiations ahead of MC12 | WTO | 12 May 2022
- Fisheries subsidies deal: Why we need it and how to implement it | UNCTAD | 28 March 2022
- Friends of Ocean Action supports call for adoption of WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies no later than February 2022 | Friends of Ocean Action | 20 December 2021
- Chair of fisheries subsidies negotiations outlines next steps for work in the new year | WTO | 10 December 2021
- DG calls on members to agree on pandemic response, fisheries subsidies by end-February | WTO | 2 December 2021
- Draft agreement on fisheries subsidies submitted for ministers’ attention ahead of MC12 | WTO | 25 November 2021
- WTO must ban harmful fisheries subsidies | U. Rashid Sumaila et al. | Science | 28 October 2021
- Fisheries subsidies ministerial meeting: 15 July 2021 | WTO
- WTO members edge closer to fisheries subsidies agreement| WTO | 15 July 2021
- A Golden Opportunity to End Destructive Fishing Subsidies| Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala| Project Syndicate | 14 July 2021
- WTO DG and chair brief NGOs ahead of turning point in fishing subsidies negotiations | WTO | 12 July 2021
- Chair introduces revised fishing subsidies text to facilitate 15 July ministerial meeting| WTO | 30 June 2021
- Sustainable Fisheries Versus Harmful Subsidies: Let’s End the War of Attrition| Rémy Parmentier | SDG Knowledge Hub Guest Article | 14 June 2021
- WTO DG fixes July ministerial meeting on over-fishing rules | Reuters | 10 May 2021
- Ministerial meeting eyed for July as fisheries subsidies negotiations enter final phase | WTO | 21 April 2021
- Negotiating Group on Rules — fisheries subsidies: Informal open-ended meeting at heads of delegation level | Remarks by DG Okonjo-Iweala | WTO | 21 April 2021
- DG calls on WTO members to narrow remaining gaps in fisheries subsidies negotiations | WTO | 12 April 2021
- WTO deal is within reach to remove harmful fishing subsidies and halt global fish meltdown | Gemma Parkes | World Economic Forum | 9 March 2021
- WTO negotiations on fisheries: “fundamental differences” remain | IISD | 1 March 2021
- WTO Members resume negotiations on fisheries subsidies | IISD | 1 February 2021
- Missed deadline to end harmful subsidies will drive more overfishing: leaders must urgently push for action early in 2021, says UN Ocean Envoy | Friends of Ocean Action | 14 December 2020
- Analysis of the overcapacity and overfishing pillar of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations | Peter Lunenborg | South Centre | November 2020
- How to craft a strong WTO deal on fishing subsidies | UNCTAD | 19 November 2020
- Potential Implementation Steps of a WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies | IISD | April 2020
- IUCN adds its voice to 108 organisations around the Globe urging end to harmful fisheries subsidies | IUCN | 2 March 2020
- WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations – down but not out | UNCTAD | 17 July 2018
- Marine fisheries and CITES: Breaking the cycle of overexploitation | ICTSD | 22 March 2010
The Role of Geneva
Various Geneva-based organizations or secretariats – listed below in alphabetical order – work actively to address overfishing and promote a sustainable blue economy. UN system’s engagement with the issue also goes beyond Geneva, with organizations around the world involved, such as the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
CITES ensures that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants – including some listed commercially exploited aquatic species – does not threaten their survival.
The FAO Fisheries Division works to strengthen global governance and the managerial and technical capacities of members and to lead consensus-building towards improved conservation and utilization of aquatic resources.
Friends of Ocean Action is an informal group of businesses, civil society organizations, international organizations and scientific institutions, convened by the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute. The aim of the group is to fast-track solutions to the most pressing challenges facing the ocean.
The IISD supports the current WTO negotiations to end harmful fisheries subsidies, recognizing the need to restore the sustainability of fish stocks while supporting livelihoods and food security.
IUCN engage in advocating international agreements and influencing policy for a sustainable management of fisheries and aquaculture worldwide.
Oceana works to reduce overfishing by advocating for science-based catch limits, reducing harmful fishing subsidies and stopping illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
The Pew Charitable Trusts is a global nongovernmental organization that seeks to improve public policy, inform the public, and invigorate civic life. Their project on “Reducing Harmful Fisheries Subsidies” focuses on providing data for better policy making to prevent overfishing.
The South Centre produces research and support developing countries to promote their interests in international negotiations, including those on fisheries subsidies at the WTO.
UNCTAD supports developing countries and promotes sustainability, notably with regards to oceans economy. In collaboration with FAO and UNEP, UNCTAD developed a roadmap to end harmful fisheries subsidies.
In order to support global efforts to tackle overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, UNECE promotes and facilitates the implementation of sustainable fisheries standards on a global scale.
UNEP Environment and Trade Hub in Geneva engages in global policy reform surrounding harmful fisheries subsidies.
The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas.
As the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations, WTO is the stage of the negotiations on fisheries subsidies.
Geneva Blue Talks | 24 May 2022 | 15.00 – 16.30 CEST | International Environment House I, Room 3 & Online | Portugal, Kenya and GEN