WTO agreement to curb fishing subsidies is 'meagre,' says expert

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It's estimated 34 per cent of global stocks are overfished, and environmentalists say one reason is fleets that are not profitable without subsidies. (CBC - image credit)
It's estimated 34 per cent of global stocks are overfished, and environmentalists say one reason is fleets that are not profitable without subsidies. (CBC - image credit)

After two decades of talking, the World Trade Organization has reached an agreement to curb subsidies that promote global overfishing, but it's unlikely to impact federal and provincial government support for Canadian fisheries.

In closing remarks, the WTO's director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said the deal prohibits support for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and bans support for fishing in overfished stocks.

She said the livelihoods of 260 million people depend directly or indirectly on marine fisheries.

"It takes a first but significant step forward to curb subsidies for overcapacity and overfishing by ending subsidies for fishing on the unregulated high seas," said Okonjo-Iweala.

"As important as the prohibitions is the transparency that will finally shed light on the actual level of subsidies going to fishing."

Kyle Bakx/CBC
Kyle Bakx/CBC

But one critic says the deal is considerably weaker than the draft agreement that formed the basis for negotiations this week in Geneva by trade ministers.

"I think the agreement is pretty meagre when compared to the ambition that was in earlier versions of the draft text," said Phillip Chou, senior director of global policy with the Washington-based conservation group Oceana.

The final agreement dropped a commitment to prohibit subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing.

Instead, there is a pledge to continue negotiations to "discipline " overcapacity.

A list of what constitutes overcapacity subsidies was also removed, including vessel upgrades, fish processing and most importantly, underwriting fuel costs.

Fuel subsidies

Chou said fuel accounts for the vast majority of harmful subsidies that promote high seas overfishing.

"In section five of the new agreement, there's not even any mention of fuel anymore," said Chou.

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.

Canada was watching for the potential impact on the $400-million Atlantic Fisheries Fund that was created 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 percent of the money — the fund has been spent on dozens of projects that range from vessel improvements, more efficient holding facilities and automation.

Ottawa assessing impact

In a recent statement to CBC News, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said it would assess the potential impact of any decision made by the WTO.

The department has not responded to a request for comment on the final deal.

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