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Overfishing – a global problem with significant consequences in the Pacific

Thursday 18 August 2022 | Written by Supplied | Published in Opinion

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Overfishing – a global problem with significant consequences in the Pacific
The crew of a fishing vessel prepares cargo net loads of frozen tuna. Photo: Francisco Blaha/22050322

The Pacific Ocean, and all its sustainable meaning, connection, and opportunity for Pacific peoples, is under severe threat.

However, a recent multilateral agreement in the global trade framework by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) looks to go some way towards supporting fish stocks to recover around the globe.

The Pacific, and those who call its islands home, are custodians of nearly 20 per cent of the Earth’s surface. As is reiterated in the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, Pacific peoples place great cultural and spiritual value on the ocean and land, as both are considered common heritage.

Over the years I have worked within the Pacific, I have come to understand that Pacific people do not need moving quotes by David Attenborough nor concerned environmentalists to give further focus to the importance of ocean abundance. Pacific Islanders have always relied on the waters where they live, with communities throughout the Blue Pacific holding sacred links with land, sky, and sea. The Pacific waters form an intrinsic part of the Pacific Island identity, culture, and way of life. Within the Pacific, the ocean will continue to have, and has always had, immense cultural significance.

Along with being inextricable from the individual and familial, the shared ocean also contributes significantly to Pacific economies. According to Conservation International, four million metric tons of tuna are fished from the waters of Pacific Island countries every year, which supplies more than 30 per cent of the global market for tuna.

According to an article in the Guardian, in 2019 the Pacific region exported 530,000 metric tonnes of seafood netting US$1.2 billion (NZ$1.9bn). The biggest exporters were Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia, Vanuatu, and Solomon Islands. The biggest importers of Pacific fish in the same year were Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, China, and the United States of America. With very few Pacific countries having the ability to catch or process their own fish on their own shores, the most common way Pacific nations capitalise on their waters, otherwise known as Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), is through the sale of foreign licenses.

Unfortunately, despite this mammoth resource and the immense lengths taken to bolster the Pacific nations cooperation and ability to negotiate license sales and the sustainable management of their waters (for example the landmark and thought leading Parties to the Nauru Agreement), the Pacific ocean, and all its sustainable opportunities for Pacific peoples, is under severe threat.

This is a nuanced and intersectional challenge that touches on everything from local industry regulations, fiscal priorities, processing, management, and policing capacities, as well as international policy, monitoring, foreign consumer habits and much, much more. In a nutshell, there are too many fishing boats, and not enough fish. Both the extraction and consumption sides of the fishing coins, showcase the full spectrum of inequity. One thing is sure though, to solve this crisis requires a global response.

The curse of government subsidies

While overfishing is a considerable and complex issue, one of the compounding factors is the prominence of government subsidies. Government subsidies can take many different forms, including covering the costs of building or running boats and other operational expenses. Some governments offer tax exemptions, or fund large projects such as building ports for easier logistics.

It is estimated that global governments contribute over US$35 billion in subsidies for the fishing industry each year. It is fair to assume that many fishing operations would not be profitable without such support. This in turn bolsters unsustainable, both economically and ecologically, fishing operations, which leads to the ongoing depletion of ocean resources globally. Addressing fishing subsidies has now become more than critical.

The goal

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 aims to ‘conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’. To contribute to meeting this goal, and its earlier iterations, for 20 years the World Trade Organization (WTO) has held ongoing conversations regarding fishing and the matter of government support. Despite the many nuanced and individualistic interests of the WTO membership, the trade body has been consistent in its message that countries must work together to resolve subsidy issues.

Agreement achieved

On Thursday 16 June 2022, at the WTO Ministerial Conference, WTO members finally struck an agreement to reduce subsidies that contribute to overfishing. It was an historic step that will be vital to helping fish stocks recover around the globe. With talks ongoing for two decades, this deal is only the second multilateral agreement in the global trade framework that the WTO has reached in its 27-year history.

Fundamentally, the WTO agreement on fishing subsidies says that no WTO member shall grant any subsidy for vessels or operators engaged in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, or for fishing an overfished stock. Furthermore, WTO members will investigate fishing activities in their own waters, and all members will be required to notify the WTO of their fishing subsidy arrangements.

It is a significant step forward for nations and regions that are reliant on the oceans and their bounty.

The amount of time and work not only in twenty years of talks and discussions, but also more recently in the negotiations and all-night meetings between Pacific Island ambassadors, trade ministers and staff, has been remarkable and deserves revere. While they are humble and modest, this highly commendable effort warrants recognition. I have watched with admiration the tireless work of the Pacific Islands Forum office in Geneva, led by Ambassador Falemaka, who is always driven to achieve the best outcome for Pacific Islands people. The process has served as a reminder that international trade and our agreements as people, communities, countries, and regions as to how we want to buy and sell, can make huge impact on the future of this planet.

Where to from here?

There is of course, more to do, as there always is. Talks will continue, aiming to achieve a more comprehensive agreement and to target further fishing subsidies and other unfair trade practices. At Pacific Trade Invest (PTI), we can be considered ‘the last runner in the relay’. We take the baton from those before us with a mandate to introduce Pacific Islands exporters to buyers in our respective markets. But so much work comes before that. Those who set the scene, negotiate the parameters, and level the playing fields, such as those who have worked tirelessly on the WTO negotiations, are our first sprinter. At PTI, we very much look forward to contributing to a more thriving, sustainable, and locally driven Pacific fishing industry, as we grab hold of that baton and, alongside the Pacific business we serve, look to ‘bring it home’.

  • By Jodie Stewart, Trade Commissioner, Pacific Trade Invest (PTI) Europe.