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TRADE: Who’s Harming Fish Stocks? Trawlers or Artisanal Fishers?

Isolda Agazzi

GENEVA, Jul 2 2009 (IPS) - Red tunas, sharks, rays and cods may soon disappear from our tables. Negotiations are ongoing at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to reduce the subsidies that contribute to this catastrophe. These talks foresee exceptions for developing countries, but small fishers may have to turn to other sources of livelihood.

Some 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks have been fished to their limits. Subsidies that are regarded as fuelling overfishing in the North and the South include direct cash grants to fisheries; tax breaks; loan guarantees; support for the construction and modernisation of vessels, pirogues and harbours; fuel subsidies; new fishing equipment.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World-Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the World Bank have made a causal link between subsidies and over-fishing. The WWF is an international non-governmental organisation working for the conservation of nature.

In 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development gave new impetus to the understanding of the nexus between trade and environment.

‘‘Industrial countries’ agreements to access developing countries’ waters largely contribute to overfishing, since these agreements are not always based on solid science and stock assessments,’’ argues Anja von Moltke of UNEP’s economics and trade branch.

‘‘In addition, developing countries often do not have sufficient information and leverage to negotiate fair and sustainable access agreements. But local subsidies to artisanal fisheries have also proved to contribute to the disappearance of species, as in the case of Senegal.’’

In that country, a drastic decline of species threatens the livelihood of the small fisherpersons that make up 15 percent of the working population.

A reduction of the subsidies that lead to access agreements would help in deterring huge European vessels, equipped with highly sophisticated radars, from catching the last fish in the ocean.

Negotiations to reduce fisheries subsidies, though less publicised than the talks on agriculture, are high on the WTO’s Doha Development Agenda. On World Oceans’ Day on Jun 8, Pascal Lamy acknowledged that ‘‘governments have contributed to the problem of overfishing by providing nearly 16 billion dollars annually in subsidies to the fisheries sector.

‘‘This support keeps more boats on the water and fewer fish in the sea. But WTO members are now negotiating to reform these programmes so that fishing becomes a sustainable industry and we can fully appreciate our oceans’ bounty for generations to come. A deal in the WTO now would mean richer oceans for future generations,’’ opined Lamy.

At the 2005 WTO Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong, governments called for a prohibition on subsidies that contribute to overcapacity in the fishing industry and over-fishing, with special and differential treatment for developing countries.

‘‘The main question in the WTO is the scope of the prohibition,’’ explains von Moltke. ‘‘Which subsidies should eventually be prohibited and, for the ones that remain, how can we ensure that they don’t contribute to over-capacity and overfishing?

‘‘This requires sustainability criteria that ensure that the fishery is not overexploited and that an effective fisheries management system is in place. It includes catch controls, access restrictions and monitoring and surveillance mechanisms.’’

But doesn’t that discriminate against developing countries that cannot afford these kinds of measures?

‘‘That’s where the special and differential treatment comes in,’’ she continues. ‘‘Most developing countries are willing to engage in a constructive dialogue and are not asking for a blank cheque to keep their own subsidies. However, since it would be more difficult for some developing countries to implement sustainability criteria, it should be made easier for them.

‘‘And the North should help the South to implement effective management systems through capacity building and technical assistance,’’ von Moltke adds.

The subsidies to artisanal fishers can certainly not be put in the same boat as the subsidies to multinational companies with gargantuan industrial fish factory trawlers.

But the WTO is pushing the position that, in several cases if not all, even small-scale, traditional artisanal fishing has caused overfishing, while practices such as artisanal dynamite fishing are highly destructive to ecosystems.

In contrast, Kenya’s WTO representative Elijah Manyara argues that, ‘‘we should get an exception on the subsidies without any condition of better management. In our country, coastal communities depend on fisheries for their livelihoods and don’t contribute to overcapacity.

‘‘When we talk about fisheries, we don’t look at the commercial angle. There is no alternative (for Kenya’s small-scale fishers).

‘‘Subsidies in the North have affected small fishers because (subsidised) trawlers enter into our water and deplete the fish stocks.’’

His position is backed up to some extent in a recent paper by John Kurien from the Centre for Development Studies in India who argued that ‘‘the small-scale fishing fleet, though they account for 98 percent of the world’s fishing fleet, can hardly be accused of large-scale use of subsidies to build up overcapacity leading to overfishing.

‘‘This is not to suggest that overcapacity and overfishing are not problems in themselves for small-scale fishing. The point is that the cause for it may have to be sought in more complex factors relating to markets, technology and institutions and not just the largesse arising from subsidies.’’

Aimee Gonzales from the WWF has a different perspective: ‘‘The size of the boat does not matter as long as you fish in areas that are overexploited. Small is not always beautiful. In Lake Victoria pirogues are not longer than 10 meters, but they are still harmful. What matters is the activity, not the size.

‘‘There should not be carte blanche just because the fishery is small. The way you manage the fishery is crucial, but some developing countries want conditions on management to remain voluntary.’’

Von Moltke regards the following as a solution to this highly political issue: ‘‘Subsidies should be rechanneled to re-building fisheries and to re-educating people to get engaged in other business. The alternative livelihood debate is about moving people out of fisheries that are not profitable any more, or move them to other fisheries that are healthy.’’

It is not only a trade problem, but also about coastal communities and governance and, as such, it has become very emotional. But the environmental groups argue that the depletion of fish is not only an ecological catastrophe as it will, in the long run, affect the livelihood of the 43 millions fishers worldwide.

How can you have a healthy fishing community if the resource has disappeared?

In order to find a participatory solution, organisations like UNEP and the WWF are facilitating informal consultations between fishers and environmental and trade experts. Some countries are also including fishers and natural resources activists in the negotiations but resistance to the proposal remains high.

The last session of the fisheries subsidies negotiations took place in May in Geneva and the next one is scheduled for September. As all Doha Round issues, decisions will have to be taken within the whole Doha package – which is far from being completed, even though Lamy has stated several times that 80 percent of the agreement had been reached.

‘‘There are starting to be some convergences on which subsidies should be banned and which ones should be exempted,’’ continues von Moltke.

Most experts – and many governments – agree that direct subsidies to the capital or operating costs of fishing enterprises should be banned, such as subsidies to vessel construction, outfitting or modification, gear or labour cost. There is also convergence that subsidies for improving vessel safety or relief from natural disaster should be excluded.

But fuel subsidies are more controversial since they are particularly important for many developing countries. Yet they clearly contribute to increasing fishing pressure. The waters are far from calming down.

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