As 1 billion people depend on fish for protein every day, mitigating the loss of 33% of global fish stocks to overexploitation is an urgent task, according to experts at the first-ever UN Trade Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, on 10 September.


The discussions to end certain fisheries subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, overfishing and overcapacity have been 20 years in the making and are yet to be finalized.

Commonwealth Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland, opened the Third Oceans Forum, held as part of the UN Trade Forum, stating that urgent action is needed, based on the unfair and damaging impacts of harmful fisheries subsidies and IUU fishing.

Our ocean is truly our common wealth. We must protect its life and bounty to be enjoyed inclusively and sustainability for the good of all people and for the healthy symbiosis of our planet

The WTO is now tasked to implement Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 14.6, which aims to ban certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing by 2020.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 33% of the world’s fish resources are overfished, while around 60% are fished at maximum biologically sustainable levels.

Catch 22

In addition, while there is a possibility for a 'triple win' in the negotiations, namely to deliver benefits for trade, development and environment, there is also friction between these objectives.

This issue poses a challenge within the WTO’s negotiating agenda, which focuses on trade rules. However, it now must adapt to sustainable development, while at the same time increasing technical fisheries issues that are outside the normal scope of the WTO’s trade-focused agenda.

However, steady progress had been made in the negotiations, despite temptation to slide back.

In addition, fisheries subsidies give industrial fleets greater advantage over small-scale artisanal fishers. In fact, it is estimated that 85% of governments’ fisheries subsidies go to these larger fleets, leaving the rest at risk, according to a 2017 research in Marine Policy.

These subsidies can inadvertently promote IUU fishing, and overfishing.

Now, the negotiations aim to balance the scales by seeking to cut the subsidies that:

  • Contribute to IUU fishing;
  • Affect overfished stocks;
  • Contribute to overfishing and overcapacity.

The negotiations also handle a compendium of cross-cutting issues.

Urgent action needed

We may think of the ocean as the last existing frontier, but it’s not. We don’t have an endless frontier. We have to create prosperity within the within limits of our planet

states Steven Stone, chief of the resources and markets at UN Environment.

However, harmful fisheries subsidies make it difficult to achieve this, he adds, explaining that all hands-on deck approach was needed to protect life below water.

Climate change will also cause important changes in the availability and trade of fish products, economically impacting countries that are based the most on the sector, warned Vera Agostini deputy director of fisheries at FAO.

Ms. Agostini noted that the consequences of climate change on the fisheries and aquaculture sector will be determined by its ability to adapt. She said, nevertheless, that the world is at a difficult point and it has to adapt to actual climate challenges.

In order to support countries while they transit to sustainable ocean economies, and to align their trade policies with sustainable development considerations, UNCTAD, UN Environment and FAO have created an inter-agency action plan.

The plan aims to help countries apply new WTO rules on fisheries subsidies and deliver trade-related ocean targets according to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Needing US$8.3 million to implement, the plan pinpoints multidisciplinary and coordinated efforts because of the complexity of multilateral rules on the law of the sea, fisheries and trade.

Finally, improvement in global fisheries management can bring further economic gains estimated at US$83 billion, the World Bank estimates.