More than one-third of all fish stocks are fished at unsustainable levels, degrading biodiversity, and devastating the future of fisheries and fishermen. Despite this, many governments around the world continue to spend taxpayer money to encourage overfishing, through fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and destructive fishing practices.
Attempts to eliminate this ‘tragedy of the commons’ started two decades ago when it was put on the agenda of the World Trade Organization (WTO). A critical milestone in this course was in 2015, when world leaders recognized the damage that harmful subsidies were causing to fish stocks and the marine environment, and adopted the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. SDG Target 14.6 tasked governments with reaching agreement at the WTO to eliminate harmful subsidies by 2020. This task is now overdue.
Why is it proving so difficult?
I have an answer based on my own experience as a European Marine Commissioner, a role I carried out between 2010-2014. In the framework of introducing a new, sustainable Common European Fisheries Policy, I tabled a proposal to eliminate all harmful fisheries subsidies from the European budget. The proposal faced fierce objections from the fisheries sector, represented mainly by the owners of large industrial vessels. Their arguments were based mostly around the supposedly unfair competition by the fisheries industry outside the EU. To cut a long story short, the proposal was adopted thanks to the support of many ocean lovers. But even though EU funds cannot support overfishing, national budgets still do.
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