For almost 20 years, 164 member countries of the World Trade Organisation have been negotiating new rules to eliminate fisheries subsidies that contribute to overfishing. The newly appointed WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has called for a special ministerial meeting to be held on July 15 to reach agreement to fulfil the trade body’s mandate.

The Director-General recognises that “concluding these negotiations is a top priority for this organisation, not only for the fisheries, but also for the WTO system”.

Overfishing ? But there is so much fish in the ocean?
According to a 2018 figures from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 33% of the world’s fish populations were overfished, 60% were being fished to their sustainable limit, and there was a margin for growth in catches of only 7% of the entire world’s fish populations. The damage done by overfishing goes beyond the marine environment. Billions of people rely on fish for protein, and fishing is the principal livelihood for millions of people around the world. Harmful fisheries subsidies are considered to be the main driver of overfishing.

What do you mean by harmful subsidies?
A new report by researchers at the University of British Columbia shows that the world’s top fishing nations are using subsidies worth billions of dollars to exploit the high seas and the waters of other nations, including some of the world’s least-developed countries. The researchers found that 10 countries – China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, the US, Thailand, Taiwan, Spain, Indonesia and Norway – spent more than $15.3 billion on harmful fishing subsidies in 2018.

About 60% ($9.2 billion) of these harmful fishing subsidies used by these 10 nations were spent on domestic fishing, while 35% ($5.4 billion) was spent on travelling long distances to fish in the waters of 116 other nations.

But more fish is good for you fish-eaters, no?
According to the report, catches made by foreign vessels in the waters of low-income countries tend to be greater than domestic subsidies and catches. For instance, in Sierra Leone, where people rely on fish for about 80% of their animal-sourced protein intake, foreign fishing subsidies exceed domestic subsidies by 10 to 1, and foreign vessels catch twice as much fish. In an extreme example, foreign fishing subsidies exceed domestic subsidies in the coastal nation of Guinea-Bissau by a ratio of 1,173 to 1, and foreign fleets catch three times as much fish.

Is that even legal?
That’s why the clamour for new rules. There is is massive illegal and unreported fishing underway. In fact the systemic overfishing is only made worse by illegal catches and trade, which is estimated at up to 30% of catch or more for high-value species. Experts estimate the value of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing at to $36.4 billion each year. These illegal catches move through opaque supply chains due to a lack of systems to track fish from catch to consumer and import controls in much of the sector.

A stall in Odisha selling fish dishes. Credit: Shailendra Yashwant

Meanwhile my neighbour D’Souza in Mumbai is frying fish every day?
In 2019, Maharashtra, on India’s west coast, witnessed the lowest annual catch in 45 years, says an estimate from previous Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute reports, with a steep decline in all the fish species being caught. The total estimated fish landings (fish catch that arrives at the ports) in the state stood at 201,000 tonnes(2.01 lakh tonnes) in 2019 against 295,000 tonnes (2.95 lakh tonnes) tonne in 2018, marking a 32% decrease.

So you are saying Chinese are stealing D’Souza’s fish?
I didn’t say that. But it is true that China’s distant-water fishing fleet has over 2,600 vessels – more than ten times that of the United States. China’s fishing industry employs more than 14 million people, and another 30 million rely on fish for their livelihood. But as stocks at home get depleted, Chinese fishermen have sailed further and become entangled in a growing number of maritime disputes. This is also true of Japan, South Korea, Russia, the US, Thailand, Taiwan, Spain, Indonesia and Norway.

So it takes WTO 20 years to figure out a solution?
According to Remi Parmentier, an adviser to the Friends of Ocean Action, who has been following the negotiations from the first meeting 22 years ago, “on one side, some argue that fisheries subsidies should disappear altogether because they perpetuate unsustainable fishing operations which would otherwise not be economically viable due to shrinking fish stocks. On the other side, some WTO members are carefully maneuvering in the hope that at least some of their own fisheries subsidies remain under the WTO radar; for example, fisheries fuel subsidies in the European. And still others are using the principle of Special and Differential Treatment for developing countries, enshrined in the WTO and the 2030 Agenda, to enjoy exemptions, even if their own fisheries are quite developed – as in the case of China.”

What is India’s position on subsidies at WTO?
India reportedly continues to argue that the WTO Fisheries Subsidies Elimination Agreement (WTO SEA), as written, would place an undue burden on its small-scale artisanal fishers. But according to experts, in fact the opposite is true: the WTO SEA would facilitate access to resources and markets for small-scale artisanal fishers, because owing to the Special and Differential Treatment clause it is primarily the large industrial fleets that would be affected.
Many negotiators are hoping that India will take the lead and help find a lasting solution that will encourage dissenting countries to take compromise position and arrive at a deal tomorrow.

Shailendra Yashwant is an environmental photographer, writer and journalist, who will eat only fresh water fish from the Periyar lake until WTO gets its act together.