On June 17, 2022, the World Trade Organization (WTO) finalized the agreement on the widely debated negotiations aimed at limiting fisheries subsidies that contribute and create a conducive environment to overfishing. The agreement aimed to protect overfished stocks by restricting the activities of countries that support illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing at sea.

Fishery subsidies are framed as playing a key role in providing capital for the expansion of fishing fleets that contribute to excess capacity in fisheries. By limiting these subsidies this would lessen the burden on fish stocks under threat.

However, the announcement of this agreement has been met with enormous contention amongst fisher people across the global south, with some movements calling for the removal of it. The Agreement fails to fundamentally address the disproportionate balance of power and capacity between industrial players with large fleets and small-scale fishery actors in the fishing industry.

Small-scale fishers in impoverished countries have limited income and resources, therefore contributing the least to overfishing while requiring the most assistance from subsidies in the fishing sector. The agreement falls short in making any meaningful provisions for addressing historical inequalities as well as holding accountable those actually responsible for the depletion of fish stocks. Developed countries and nations historically account for a large portion of overfishing in their waters, high seas and abroad yet this agreement punishes those least responsible allowing big contributors to evade accountability.

The National Platform for Small Scale Fish Workers (NPSSFW) in India tabled the following concerns towards the decision of the WTO:

  1. The Agreement permits industrialized nations with sizable industrial fishing fleets to continue to subsidize the exploitation of marine fisheries without taking fleet type or fishing capacity into account;
  2. The Agreement does not offer any preferential or favorable treatment with regard to subsidies for small-scale sustainable fisheries.
  3. It permits developing countries like India to continue to subsidize their large-scale fishing sectors even though they engage in unregulated and unsustainable fishing.
  4. Since these subsidies have more to do with fisheries management than with international trade, they fall outside of the WTO’s purview and cannot be regulated.
  5. Small-scale fisher’s traditional rights to a living cannot be violated under the guise of IUU (illegal, unreported, and unregulated) fishing.

The shift in the location of fisheries management has also been a contributing factor to the changes we are currently seeing in decision-making and various outcomes. FAO has historically had the responsibility of leading international negotiations on fisheries. However, in 2017 this mandate was handed over to WTO to deal with the fishery subsidies. This mandate was granted despite the WTO not having the expertise to handle fisheries management. This decision has undeniably made small-scale fishers vulnerable to undemocratic processes from the WTO.

The very core of this agreement fails to target those responsible for sustained overfishing as well as those who have accumulated wealth at the expense of fish stocks and resource owners in developing countries. Small-scale fishers are among the most vulnerable groups in the fisheries industry; they depend on government aid for survival and bear the least responsibility for the condition of the world’s fisheries. The WTO must go back to the drawing board to make this process more inclusive and equitable considering the historical background of pillaging of industrial fleets.