Africa: Does Africa Gain From the WTO”s Landmark Fishing Subsidies Deal?

Although the new agreement is ground-breaking, gaps remain that threaten the continent’s blue economy aspirations.

After 21 years of talks, an agreement has been reached that prohibits harmful fishing subsidies – a leading factor in the plunder of global fish stocks. This could be a major development for Africa where the fisheries sector, which provides livelihoods and food security for over 400 million people, is vulnerable to exploitation.

According to the African Development Bank, around seven million tons of fish are caught in Africa annually. Population growth projections say that fish supply must increase to 13 million tons by 2030 to feed 1.7 billion people and 19 million tons by 2050 to feed 2.5 billion. However, coastal states are not catching enough fish to meet Africa’s requirements. At least 35 countries on the continent are operating on a fish production deficit and are highly dependent on imports.

As global fish demand is expected to increase by 30% by 2030, the sector faces tremendous pressures that require urgent, global responses. One such response is the 17 June adoption of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies. It provides the impetus for African countries to prioritise fisheries governance, sustainable ocean governance and food security for a rapidly growing population.

To make the landmark deal work for Africa though, the capacity of governments to control and monitor fishing activities in their waters will need a significant boost. And cooperation between agencies responsible for fisheries management must improve.

As the exploitation of marine resources increases, fish stocks are facing collapse in several regions globally. Many governments subsidise unprofitable industrial-scale fishing fleets to cover rising fishing costs and growing consumer demand. The WTO estimates that global fisheries subsidies range from US$14 billion to US$54 billion yearly.

Africa’s capacity to control and monitor fishing activities in its waters needs a major boost

Not all subsidies are bad, and removing government financial support for artisanal fishers in most African countries would do more damage than eliminating illegal fishing. The subsidies that should be stopped are those enabling the large-scale plunder of fish stocks. This includes financing vessels to acquire sophisticated equipment to catch more sea life while operating far from their home ports and markets.

These unsustainable approaches exacerbate insecurity in Africa, particularly in coastal communities. With an estimated value of US$24 billion and providing jobs for over 12 million people, the fisheries industry is fundamental to the continent’s blue economic vision and the African Union’s Africa Blue Economy Strategy.

Addressing harmful fishing subsidies is one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala says this is the first time WTO members have ‘concluded an agreement with environmental sustainability at its heart.’

The agreement focuses on three aspects of harmful subsidising. First, it prohibits subsidies for the fishing of overfished stock. This should support conservation efforts in coastal states, especially where maritime governance is poor. Second, it prohibits subsidising fishing on high seas in areas not covered by regional fisheries management organisations. This aims to protect the most sought-after large fish stocks, which migrate in and out of the jurisdiction of multiple states whose enforcement capability can be variable and lacking.

The new WTO agreement doesn’t ban harmful fisheries subsidies outright

Finally, the agreement prohibits subsidies to fishing vessels and operators engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. When negotiations began in 2001, it was understood that subsidies contributed to overfishing and were linked to increased illegal fishing. In West Africa, research suggests that long-distance industrial fleets, many of which are the primary subsidy recipients, are also the main culprits of overfishing.

The agreement compels countries to temporarily discontinue subsidising a vessel or operator if a coastal state, a flag state or a regional fisheries management organisation determines that they have engaged in illegal fishing. The subsidising state will determine the duration of the prohibition based on the nature, gravity and repetition of the infringement.

The agreement’s effectiveness relies on several issues. While it restricts the use of subsidies and provides conditions for their withdrawal, the WTO deal does not ban harmful subsidies outright. Progress will depend on the willingness of subsidising states to work with coastal states to address illegal fishing. This is a risk considering that several subsidising states ignore harmful activities attributed to their country’s fishing fleets, flags, and crews.

The WTO dispute system will be the primary vehicle to enforce the agreement if coastal and subsidising states should clash. But the system may be difficult for developing states to use effectively because they lack the bargaining power and resources of more powerful countries.

The deal’s effectiveness depends on the willingness of subsidising states to work with coastal states

Another problem is the lack of transparency in the fishing sector – a major factor in illegal fishing. For instance, as part of its sustainable fisheries partnership efforts, the European Union (EU) has negotiated numerous agreements with non-EU states. But although these deals are rooted in sustainability, they have been criticised for loopholes that allow EU vessel owners to hide their ownership and avoid responsibility.

To prevent illegal fishing, global instruments such as the International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing should be strengthened. The plan doesn’t specify sanctions, but countries apply them. This suggests that illegal fishing should be regulated as an administrative matter rather than a criminal one.

The ability of African governments to patrol and inspect at sea also needs support. Given the scarcity of resources, research is needed to inform fisheries management policies, particularly on the deployment of patrol vessels. Capacity and training for evidence collection to detect offenders are also essential. If this is accompanied by greater international transparency on fishing data, these countries could use their limited patrol assets better.

African countries often struggle to engage profitably in commercial fisheries. They can use the WTO agreement’s special treatment provisions to negotiate support for scaling up small-scale fisheries and empowering local fisher communities. The WTO has a US$20 million rolling fund to help developing countries improve capacity and management skills for sustainable fisheries governance.

The new subsidies agreement is a notable achievement, but it won’t immediately help African countries effectively patrol their exclusive economic zones and prevent the plundering of fish stocks. But it does bolster ongoing multilateral efforts to tackle illegal fishing, which threatens Africans’ present and future human security.

Timothy Walker, Project Leader and Senior Researcher, Denys Reva, Researcher and David Willima, Research Officer, Maritime, ISS Pretoria

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