The UN Sustainable Development Goals provided for subsidies contributing to overfishing to end by 2020. Where are we now, with negotiations on overfishing resuming at the World Trade Organization (WTO)?

Fishermen during the summer moratorium on fishing in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT
Fishermen during the summer moratorium on fishing in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT

In 2015, the UN planned to end overfishing” by the end of the decade. Its goal: “to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible”. However, in its latest report on fisheries, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) considers it “unlikely” that this objective can be achieved given the current situation of overfishing worldwide.


More than one-third of fish stocks are being overexploited

In its report, the FAO gives an alarming overview of overfishing in the world. It estimates that 34.2% of fish stocks exploited by marine fisheries were overexploited in 2017. This percentage rises to 39% of stocks in the Northeast Atlantic and its neighboring seas and up to 88% in the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea. In other words, those fish stocks are being exploited unsustainably and are depleting at a rate too fast to recover. Meanwhile, most of the other stocks (60%) are being exploited at full capacity.

Overfishing has been on a continual upward trend since the 1970s, when it was only a third as great as now. However, FAO reports that this trend differs according to region: while developed countries seem to be gradually improving their fishery management methods, the situation is getting worse in developing countries.



Overexploitation of fishery resources poses a huge threat to marine biodiversity. NGOs such as Bloom and WWF are deeply concerned by the destruction of habitats, imbalance of ecosystems, and risks of extinction for certain species (especially predatory species, such as shark, ray and swordfish).

Besides its ecological damage, overfishing has social and economic consequences. Non-replenishment of fish stocks equates to a risk that the people who depend on those resources will suffer over the long term. A decline in the productivity of fishing fleets has already been observed worldwide, despite the increase in their numbers and catch capacity. Overexploitation thus poses serious threats to global food security at a time when more than 3 billion people around the world depend on fisheries for their main sources of protein.


Financial aid fuels overfishing

Overexploitation of fish stocks has many causes. Illegal fishing and the lack of transparency in fisheries agreements between developed and developing countries are among them. But for Daniel Pauly, a renowned specialist in marine resources, the main problem behind overfishing is financial support to the sector in the form of subsidies.

About $35 billion in aid to fisheries is spent by governments worldwide each year, of which about 60% directly contributes to increasing the catch capacity of fishing fleets. And, in his view, this financial aid appears to largely favor industrial deep-sea fishing over small-scale coastal fishing, which is much less destructive.

These subsidies take on various forms, such as aid for the purchase of fishing equipment or fuel, or aid for the building and modernization of vessels. Support for fishers, which is practiced by all countries, is often perceived by authorities as a way of developing coastal areas that are less dynamic economically than cities.

In terms of volume, most studies agree that China is by far the world’s largest subsidizer. Next come the European Union, the United States, Japan, and South Korea, in orders that vary according to different studies. However, the SDGs explicitly provide for prohibiting fishery subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing by 2020, and for refraining from introducing new ones (Target 14.6). Yet, with only three months to the end of the year, no multilateral agreement has been reached on this divisive issue under negotiation since the 2000s.


Rethinking subsidies: the uncertain outcome to negotiations

It’s against this backdrop that negotiations resumed among the members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) last September. For twenty years now, governments have been negotiating to reduce the most damaging subsidies, without ever succeeding. At the 11th WTO Conference in Buenos Aires in 2017, government ministers agreed on a work program to adopt an agreement endorsing the UN target in 2020. Ideally, it should have put an end to subsidies for illegal fishing and for financing overcapacity and overfishing. It also provided for special and differential treatment for developing and least-developed countries.



Far from seeking a total cessation of aid to fishermen, the negotiations consist in rethinking subsidies so that overfishing is no longer encouraged. The goal is to shift aid towards mechanisms that improve fishers’ incomes while preserving fish stocks.

These would be “virtuous aids” to subsidize fisheries management, research and development (R&D), payments directly targeting fishers’ incomes rather than fishing equipment (e.g. employment insurance programs, assistance in the event of natural disasters), and programs for upgrading fishers’ skills. According to OECD estimates, $2 billion in additional income would go to fishers if fuel subsidies were redirected to support businesses and human capital.

With three months to go until the end of the year, will countries manage to agree to put an end to the most harmful financial tools that encourage overfishing? At the conclusion of the first round of discussions that brought together 50 delegations in mid-September, the Chair of the negotiations, Santiago Wills, noted cryptically that “some members had emphasized the importance of concluding the negotiations in 2020” but that others “had questioned the feasibility of meeting that timing” due to the COVID-19 crisis. In short, we’re not assured of anything.

Meanwhile, WWF estimates that halving the number of fishing trawlers would be needed to ensure true sustainable development of the sector. In that respect, the end to overfishing seems uncertain and far in the future.



The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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