Talks at the WTO to save the world’s fish fail to reach agreement

Talks at the WTO to save the world’s fish fail to reach agreement

A missed deadline is terrible news for the oceans

“A DEBT THAT we owe to the global community” is how Santiago Wills, Colombia’s ambassador to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva, described the talks he has been chairing on ending subsidies for fishing that damages global stocks. Sadly, he was announcing a default. The aim of finalising an agreement by the end of this year will be missed. Negotiations have dragged on for two decades. They had been given some impetus by the decision in 2015 to include in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the aim of eliminating subsidies “by 2020”, a target missed and reinterpreted to mean the end of the year. But environmentalists are despondent that the last vestige of a hard deadline has now vanished. “Missing the SDG target is really important,” says Annabelle Bladon of the International Institute for Environment and Development, a think-tank in London.

The talks are intended to eliminate subsidies that contribute to “illegal, unreported and unregulated” (IUU) fishing, estimated to account for a remarkable 20-50% of the global catch, as well as those that sustain legal overfishing and the building of overcapacity. Many fish stocks are collapsing. It is estimated that the proportion of the total stock of fish in the oceans that are overfished—ie, exploited at such a pace that the fish population cannot replenish itself—has risen from 10% in 1974 to 34% now. This is endangering coastal communities that rely on fishing. Roughly 39m people depend on capture fisheries for their livelihood. And fish provide 20% of animal-protein needs on average for 3.3bn people.