Fisheries Subsidies to Spur Sustainable Blue Economy

Published on 5th July 2022

Today, over three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods. How quickly and how well we manage these resources, and the decisions we all make now, will greatly impact people and the planet for decades to come. This is a moment for global cooperation and for global solidarity.

Allow me to make three points.

1. A sustainable, global blue economy requires a strong set of rules, regulations and policies. In 2015, world leaders tasked the international community with the SDGs, including SDG 14 on sustainable ocean and fisheries management. We are now in a race against time to  complete the Agenda 2030 for sustainable development and the relevant SDGs. I am delighted to report that at the recent 12th Ministerial Conference of the WTO, Members agreed to end the most harmful fisheries subsidies.

The Geneva package adopted at MC12 was multilateralism at its best — our 164 members, from Ukraine and Russia to US, China, EU, India, Japan and so many SIDS and LDCs and other developing countries — came together across geopolitical fault lines to strike agreements that will make our ocean healthier, and enhance our collective ability to respond to the  COVID pandemic and the food crisis that has been made much worse by the war in Ukraine. It shows that with the right level of political commitment and leadership, multilateralism can work.

The new agreement on fisheries subsidies - the WTO's first to put a primarily environmental objective at its core — responds to SDG 14.6.  After over 20 years of negotiations, members agreed on curbing the estimated US $22 billion in annual public support that contributes to the depletion of marine resources. It bans subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, as well as fishing in the unregulated high seas and in overfished stocks.

A new Fund has been established to provide technical assistance — in partnership with organizations like FAO, IFAD (and World Bank) — and capacity building to developing countries, helping them implement the new rules and improve their fisheries management. We've already received substantial pledges from donor countries and more is expected.

The agreement launches a second wave of negotiations to add further rules on support contributing to overcapacity and overfishing.

At a time of when food insecurity is at the top of our minds, the new agreement will shore up blue economies whose livelihoods and nutrition depend on fisheries and the sustainable use of marine resources.

The agreement also potentially frees up billions of dollars of public funds that could now be leveraged as blue finance or investments to develop new economic activities and sectors such as nature-based tourism, sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, maritime shipping or green seaport activities. Resources that once contributed to emptying our oceans could instead be channelled towards emerging industries like marine biotechnology, renewable energy, or seabed exploration.

My message to investors is to please push for investments, banking, insurance to projects that help contribute to SDG 14 as well as other SDGs that contribute to better governance of the oceans. Such investments would have wider and longer-lasting impact if they are diversified across sectors and bring in MSMEs too.  Public and private sector partnerships for investment will need to be underpinned by sustainability principles and robust ESG disclosures to ensure transparency. This is about making sure that profits and ocean health go hand in hand.

2. The ocean is everyone's business. Its productivity and health affects us all, directly or indirectly. Long term, predictable and sustainable finance and de-risking of sectors can help build the blue economy.

Our oceans are swimming in troubled waters from a triple planetary crisis. Climate change, biodiversity loss, and marine pollution are having devasting impacts.

Estimates suggest that climate-induced declines in ocean health could annually cost the global economy US $428 billion by 2050 and nearly US $2 trillion per annum by the end of this century!

Marine pollution has turned the oceans into a dumping ground.  The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” — an area the size of Mongolia — has become emblematic of a global problem that demands action.  

We need clean, climate and ocean friendly solutions for current and future generations.

The good news is that investing in the blue economy makes excellent business sense — while also delivering for people and the environment.

World Bank research (“The Ocean Economy in Mauritius: Making it Happen, Making it Last”, 2017), suggests that by doubling its current share of the ocean economy from 12% to 25% by 2025, Mauritius can create thousands of jobs and create more long-term sustainability, with investments of USD 580 m per year.

The ocean-economy is estimated to have an annual value of US$ 2.5 trillion, this would make it the world's 7th largest economy.  The oceans contribute to food security, employment, trade, and prosperity. More than 3 billion people either directly or indirectly rely on the oceans for their livelihoods.

Trade can help us build back “bluer”.

But we still need financing from different sources to efficiently scale up investments in ambitious and innovative sustainable blue economies.

A good starting point is to ask ourselves what sectors, what activities, and what services need investments to strengthen the ocean economy.

Is it infrastructure that we need to focus on? Does the marine transport sector need a reboot? How best can we deploy finance and technology to developing countries? How do we help the next ocean leaders from around the world develop the skills, knowledge and learning they will need? How do we best create robust marine spatial plans so that investors can get better insights on what's feasible or not for sustainable returns?

Several SIDS are showing the way on the blue economy: Seychelles with its blue bonds and Debt for Nature Swaps in return to protect its Plateau.

3. There is no blue economy without a green economy. Greater international coordination and cooperation and addressing global common challenges such as climate change, adaptation, resilience early on, will be essential. Trade can help enhance new “blue” businesses, especially for SIDS or low-income countries,

At the WTO, members are engaged in exploring triple “wins” for trade, environment, and development.

Members have launched ground-breaking work on plastics pollution and environmentally sustainable plastic trade at the WTO that will support the ongoing UN International Plastics Treaty Negotiations. We are collaborating within the UN System with UNEP and others.

Members are looking at how trade can be a tool for accelerating movement towards a more circular economy.

Reducing trade barriers on environmental goods and services can lower costs and disseminate best practices and cutting-edge technologies, including those needed for ocean conservation. This can include ecotourism, weather alert systems, pollution remediation technologies, renewable energy, artificial intelligence for marine biology.

Through Aid for Trade, commercial ventures like seaweed farming, with zero fertilizers, can scale-up into new markets and circular economy solutions for aquaculture may reduce waste.

All of these actions support climate mitigation and adaptation.

Preparing for the future is critical. We do not have to look further back than the COVID-19 pandemic to remember that.

Oceans have a tremendous ability to bounce back and regenerate. But we need to give them the scope to do so. The  WTO has taken an important first step with the fisheries subsidies agreement.

By Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala,

WTO Director-General.

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