Canada on board for ending harmful fishing subsidies at WTO meeting

·3 min read
Lobster boats head from West Dover, N.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press - image credit)
Lobster boats head from West Dover, N.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press - image credit)

A World Trade Organization meeting in Geneva has been extended to give international trade ministers more time to reach a deal to end subsidies that promote overfishing in the world's oceans.

The outcome could impact the way the fishing industry operates in Canada.

"We are finally close to concluding negotiations on fisheries subsidies," said Mary Ng, Canada's minister of international trade, in a video statement posted ahead of this week's WTO meeting.

Canada says it is supportive of ending subsidies.

"I hope that we can all commit to delivering a meaningful outcome to achieve our sustainable development goals and shared environmental ambitions," Ng said.

A global problem with local consequences

The WTO announced Wednesday it would extend the meeting by one day — to Thursday — to try to reach an agreement on fishing subsidies and other items.

It's estimated 34 per cent of global stocks are overfished.

Environmentalists say one reason is high seas fleets that are not profitable without subsidies.

While Canada doesn't fish outside its territorial waters, the country has a stake in the outcome, says Rashid Sumaila, an economist and professor at the University of British Columbia.

"So if Spain is giving subsidies, they are going to just sit outside Canadian waters and the fish that go in and out, they hammer them. So you want to take out subsidies globally so that Canadian waters and the waters of the world will be protected," he said.

Canadian subsidies

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada spent about a billion dollars in 2018 on income support to fishermen, infrastructure and fisheries management.

Not all could be considered subsidies, but they are part of the fishing industry business model.

Sumaila says employment insurance, for example, would be considered "a bad subsidy."

"It is specially designed for fishers with good intentions, but that means that it keeps people fishing longer than they would in the market system."

CBC News is awaiting a federal government response on how an international agreement on subsidies would impact Canada's fishing industry.

The Atlantic Fisheries Fund

Canada launched the $400-million Atlantic Fisheries Fund in 2017 to "grow and promote the fish and seafood sector in Atlantic Canada," according to then fisheries minister Dominic LeBlanc.

Cost-shared with the Atlantic provinces —which put up 30 per cent of the money — the fund has been spent on dozens of projects that range from vessel improvements, more efficient holding facilities and automation.

A spokesperson for Nova Scotia's Fisheries Department said the province doesn't believe a WTO agreement would be a threat to the fund.

"The focus of WTO text is to eliminate or limit harmful subsidies through the application of trade rules and scientific evidence. The Atlantic Fisheries Fund is focused on supporting innovation, infrastructure, and science partnerships that help improve our knowledge and understanding," said Sarah Levy MacLeod in an e-mailed response to CBC News.

Where a subsidy might be allowed

The draft agreement being negotiated this week includes a provision that subsidies promoting overcapacity would be exempt if the country can demonstrate the fishery is biologically sustainable.

The agreement bans subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Less-developed nations would be given a two-year exemption to eliminate subsidies that promote illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The WTO is also looking at creating a fund to help poorer countries.

The draft agreement does not permit exemptions for subsidies that promote fishing of an overfished stock.

The WTO has been talking about ending fishing subsidies since 2001.

Sumaila has closely watched the process from B.C.

"What I can say for sure is that I'm more hopeful this round than ever before in the last 20 years," he said.

"I see a fifty-fifty chance of us getting an agreement that would really have an impact on the water."

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