Lung fish.

A Fish Called Development

One of the first tests of the new Sustainable Development Goals will be whether they influence the outcome of other international negotiations. When leaders meet at the tenth WTO Ministerial Conference in Nairobi in December, they will have an opportunity to meet one of the targets: elimination of harmful fisheries subsidies.

GENEVA – The just-adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are expected to herald the start of a new era in global development, one that promises to transform the world in the name of people, the planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership. But there is an ocean of difference between promising and doing. And, while global declarations are important – they prioritize financing and channel political will – many of today’s pledges have been made before.

In fact, whether the SDGs succeed will depend to a significant degree on how they influence other international negotiations, particularly the most complex and contentious ones. And an early test concerns a goal for which the Global Ocean Commission actively campaigned: to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.”

When political leaders meet at the tenth WTO Ministerial Conference in Nairobi in December, they will have an opportunity to move toward meeting one of that goal’s most important targets: prohibition of subsidies that contribute to overfishing and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing by no later than 2020.

This is not a new ambition; it has been on the WTO’s agenda for many years, and it has been included in other international sustainable development declarations. But, even today, countries spend $30 billion a year on fisheries subsidies, 60% of which directly encourages unsustainable, destructive, or even illegal practices. The resulting market distortion is a major factor behind the chronic mismanagement of the world’s fisheries, which the World Bank calculates to have cost the global economy $83 billion in 2012.

In addition to concerns about finances and sustainability, the issue raises urgent questions about equity and justice. Rich economies (in particular Japan, the United States, France, and Spain), along with China and South Korea, account for 70% of global fisheries subsidies. These transfers leave thousands of fishing-dependent communities struggling to compete with subsidized rivals and threaten the food security of millions of people as industrial fleets from distant lands deplete their oceanic stocks.

West Africa, where fishing can be a matter of life and death, is being particularly hard hit. Since the 1990s, when foreign vessels, primarily from the EU and China, began to fish on an industrial scale off its shores, it has become impossible for many local fishers to make a living or feed their families.

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From 1994 to 2005, Senegal’s catch fell from 95,000 to 45,000 tons, according to government estimates, and the country lost half of its fleet of traditional wooden pirogues. As the fish stocks collapsed in 2005, 5,000 people decided to put their redundant fishing boats to a different use, by fleeing to the Spanish Canary Islands. A year later, more than 30,000 others made the same perilous journey, and an estimated 6,000 drowned. Senegalese and Mauritanian fishermen and their families are also among the thousands of people risking their lives to get to Europe today.

On the high seas, the distortion is even larger. According to fisheries economists, subsidies by some of the world’s richest countries are the only reason large-scale industrial fishing in areas beyond coastal countries’ 200-mile exclusive economic zones is profitable. But fish do not respect international boundaries, and it is estimated that 42% of the commercial fish being caught travel between countries’ exclusive zones and the high seas. As a result, industrial fishing far from shore undermines developing countries’ coastal, mostly artisanal, fisheries.

Eliminating harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020 is not only crucial for conserving the ocean; it will also affect our ability to meet other goals, such as our promises to end hunger and achieve food security and to reduce inequality within and among countries.

The credibility of both the WTO and the newly adopted SDGs will be on the line in Nairobi. The Global Ocean Commission has put forward a clear three-step program to eliminate harmful fishing subsidies. All that is needed is for governments finally to agree to put an end to the injustice and waste that they cause.

Fortunately, there are encouraging signs. Nearly 60% of the WTO’s membership supports controlling fisheries subsidies, with support from the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of developing countries – together with the EU’s contribution to improve transparency and reporting – giving new momentum to the effort. Among the initiatives being put forward in advance of the Nairobi meeting is the so-called “NZ +5 proposal.” Co-sponsored by New Zealand, Argentina, Iceland, Norway, Peru, and Uruguay, the plan would eliminate fisheries subsidies that affect overfished stocks and contribute to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

The Global Ocean Commission urges the remaining 40% of the WTO’s members – and especially the biggest players currently blocking this process – to accept the relatively modest proposals on the table. A sustainable future for our planet and its oceans depend on it.