Chief Scientist calls for fishing subsidies ban



Heriot-Watt’s Chief Scientist is backing calls for the World Trade Organisation to take a historic step and eliminate ‘harmful’ fishing subsidies.

Professor Michel Kaiser is one of 296 scientists representing almost 200 institutions around the world who have today published an open letter in Science calling for the unprecedented action. They argue government payments incentivise overfishing, undermining the ecosystem as well as livelihoods and even cultures.

A ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is scheduled for next month, which could pave the way for a ban if members can reach an agreement. 

In their letter the scientists set out a series of recommendations including in relation to subsidies for distant-water fishing fleets, which it states must be eliminated to prevent overfishing on the high seas and in waters under national jurisdiction. Such subsidies, the letter continues, threaten low-income countries that rely on fish for food sovereignty. The letter goes on to say that any exceptions to the rules—known as special and differential treatment—should be considered for small-scale fishers that use low-impact gears or that fish for subsistence, but only if decoupled from incentivising overfishing.

While fishing subsidies are a long-standing global issue, the scale of the problem was laid bare in 2016, when Chinese fishing vessels accounted for 17 million of the 40 million fishing hours performed worldwide, more than the 10 next biggest countries combined. And despite the UN’s sustainable development goal to end harmful fishing subsidies, China spent US$5.89billion in 2018 greatly increasing the catch capacity of fishing fleets including Distant Water Fishing vessels (DWF). 

Michel Kaiser, Professor of Fisheries Conservation at the Lyell Centre at Heriot-Watt University, said: “Next month, the WTO members have a rare opportunity at their ministerial meeting to reach an agreement to ban fishing subsidies that have negative outcomes for people and the environment.

“Helping the fishing industry move to more sustainable practices and technologies that lower greenhouse gas emissions from fishing, would be a more constructive use of these funds.”

The WTO is the only global organisation that oversees trade rules between its 164 member states. To curb overfishing, biodiversity degradation and loss, and CO2 emissions, and to safeguard food and livelihoods, the letter urges WTO members to prohibit fisheries subsidies. Instead, it calls on policy makers to declare their support for an agreement that enshrines their recommendations.

It goes further, stating WTO members must harness their political mandate ‘to protect the health of the ocean and the well-being of society’.

The open letter comes as world leaders prepare to gather in Glasgow for COP26. Heriot-Watt University is committed to applying its related pioneering research to address global challenges. Follow the University’s involvement in COP26 on social media and search #HWCOP.


Craig McManamon

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