Fishing Subsidies Billions More Than Governments Admit

GLAND, Switzerland, October 25, 2001 (ENS) - Government subsidies to the fishing industry amount to at least US$15 billion per year, or roughly 20 percent of the total landed value of the world's commercial fish catch, according to new figures released today by WWF, the conservation organization.


Tuna captured inside a net (Photo courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA))
The WWF report, "Hard Facts, Hidden Problems: A Review of Current Data on Fishing Subsidies," for the first time offers hard evidence that nearly one U.S. dollar in five earned by the fishing industry comes from government handouts.

Misguided fishing subsidies are considered by environmental groups to contribute to the depletion of the world's fish stocks, 60 percent of which are currently overfished or on the brink of being overfished.

"This report should end any doubt that subsidies to the fishing sector are truly massive," said David Schorr, director of WWF's Sustainable Commerce Programme. "Numbers provided by governments themselves now prove the scale of the problem."

Governments have officially reported subsidies up to US$13 billion per year. But WWF analysis found that these numbers underreport the actual level of global fishing subsidies by a wide margin. WWF attributes government underreporting to a combination of carelessness and purposeful obfuscation.

The WWF report gives detailed new evidence that governments are routinely violating legal obligations imposed by the World Trade Organization (WTO) requiring countries to provide data about their subsidy programmes.


Seiners moored in Dakar, Senegal (Photo courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA))
According to Schorr, governments all but ignore WTO rules designed to ensure the public is informed and subsidies are not kept secret.

WWF's report comes shortly before a major WTO meeting next month in Qatar - the first ministerial meeting at the WTO since the 1999 debacle in Seattle.

Pressure for the WTO to open negotiations on fishing subsidies surfaced with a communication to the organization prior to its last meeting in 1999 from seven countries - Peru, Australia, Iceland, New Zealand, Philippines, United States and Norway.

The countries said, "There is a growing recognition that many subsidies affect the fisheries sector, impede sustainable development, distort trade and seriously undermine the possibilities for effective conservation and sustainable utilization of fish stocks."

"Overcapacity of the global fishing fleet is, along with inadequate management regimes, the predominant cause of the depletion of fish stocks in many regions. It is generally recognized that government subsidies and other market distortions are primary factors in causing this overcapacity," the countries wrote.


Bringing aboard tuna in a purse seine net (Photo courtesy NOAA)
In its briefing notes for the November WTO meeting, the organization's Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE) said only, the situation "specifically with regard to environmentally damaging subsidies, especially in the fisheries area, may require a clarification of the role of the CTE in a negotiating context."

The launch of negotiations on fishing subsidies tops the list of WWF's demands for the upcoming WTO ministerial.

"The political question remains whether WTO members will seize a real opportunity to commit themselves even to simple and practical steps to ensure that the WTO develops trade rules in a manner that promotes equity and sustainable use of the Earth's natural resources," said Aimée Gonzales, senior policy adviser of the Trade Unit at WWF International.

"Failure to do so at the ministerial amounts to the WTO ignoring its own charter and further fuelling public suspicion and mistrust in the institution," she said.