Robert Ovetz, Ph.D.
Marine Species Campaigner
Sea Turtle Restoration Project
The daily pillaging of the ocean by large industrial fleets has caused the collapse in global fish stocks and the slaughter of a wide diversity of critically endangered marine species such as the Pacific Leatherback sea turtle. In less than two decades, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the percentage of the oceans that have been fully fished or overexploited by unsustainable fishing practices has skyrocketed from 5 to 75%. Our oceans are in serious danger.
What has the WTO done about it?
Its most powerful members have caused the fisheries crisis. The so-called "Friends of the Fish" are promoting so called "free" market mechanisms that are actually the cause of the collapse of this globally shared common asset. These nations could be better called "foes of the fish" as they continue to selectively subsidizing, by as much as $54 billion per year, industrial fishing-the very cause of the problem-at the expense of sustainable small-scale efforts.
The extent of the crisis is most severe in the Pacific high seas where the size and quality of lucrative tuna and swordfish catches have declined rapidly in the face of non-selective industrial longline fleets targeting juvenile populations years from reproductive maturity. Fishery after global fishery such as halibut, cod, lobster, sardines and countless others have collapsed. Because they are completely voluntary and virtually unenforced, regional fisheries councils and international conventions have been hampered from reversing the tide. These bodies often limit policy for fear of proposing solutions that might run afoul of WTO rules.
These Foes of the Fish nations are reaping the proceeds of nearly 80% of the global fish catch, the majority of which is exported by developing nations struggling to repay unmanageable debt payments. As the EEZ waters of these wealthy nations are depleted, their overcapitalized industrial fleets have descended upon the high seas and territorial waters of developing nations that receive subsidized access fees in exchange for access.
Its most powerful members have caused the ocean crisis. This industrial rampage is simultaneously responsible for pushing marine species such as the Pacific Leatherback, whose populations have collapsed 95% in the past 20 years, to the brink of extinction. Worldwide, millions of critically endangered species such as whales, sea turtles, porpoises, penguins, dolphins and seals are pointlessly maimed and killed each year as so-called "bycatch," non-commercial species thrown back into the water. Alongside this slaughter, vast coral reefs, seamounts, and coastal habitats which serve as marine nurseries are being wiped out by development, trawling, and gillnets.
The WTO is no more likely to support ocean conservation once puts fisheries on the table. In 1999, a WTO panel overturned a U.S. law that banned all shrimp imports caught without the use of "Turtle Excluder Devices" (TEDs), a proven and inexpensive bycatch reduction technology. Although a panel later reversed this ruling, the action has essentially gutted an invaluable law protecting sea turtles.
No New WTO Facilities. At the WTO Cancun meeting in September, "Foes of the Fish" nations such as the US, New Zealand and Chile as well as the whale killing Norway and Iceland will again attempt to bring fisheries and the oceans under the rubric of the WTO. Doing so would allow the WTO to use so-called "disciplines" to dismantle what little sovereign government oversight and management of the oceans presently exist.
Obscured by the Foes banner of ending subsidies is a plan that would continue favoring industrial pillaging of the oceans for lucrative export markets while driving out sustainable small-scale fishing serving local consumption and destroying our remaining marine biodiversity. Rather than ratify international treaties such as the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity and put teeth in existing international conventions that would implement sustainable international solutions to the crisis, the U.S. is lining up the WTO to privatize the oceans from the top down. What such an approach obscures is that this crisis has commercial causes but no market solutions.
"Free" Market Fishing is a Destructive and Wasteful Industry
•Pacific longlining fleets annually catch and kill nearly 4 million sharks, Leatherback sea turtles, billfish, seals, albatross, dolphins and whales while fishing for swordfish and high dollar tuna for export to the US and Japanese markets.
•Worldwide, an estimated 2.3 billion pounds of fish-25% of the total catch-is wasted as bycatch each year.
•Pacific swordfish longlining has a bycatch rate ten times other longline fisheries.
•40% of all swordfish catch is discarded
•More swordfish is caught as bycatch by the tuna fleet than as the target species.
•In the shrimp fisheries, more than 7 pounds of so called "bycatch" are thrown back dead and dying for every pound of shrimp caught.
•Targeting the top of the oceanic food chain is an inefficient and wasteful use of food resources. For example, the annual tuna catch of 3 million metric tons consumes 60 million tons of prey.
"Free" Market Fishing Drives the Depletion of the Oceans
• There is currently double the capacity of fishing effort that can be sustained by the ocean.
•"Individual Transferable Quotas" (IFQ) encourage the vertical integration and consolidation of local fisheries by multinational companies.
•Fishing regulatory bodies are dominated by representatives of the fishing industry such as the National Fisheries Institute. These parties ensure that conservation measures are either not implemented or not enforced.
•Wealthy nations buy fishing access from poor developing nations resulting in depleted local fisheries, lock out of small-scale fisherpeople and rising costs
"Free" Market Fishing Threatens Food Security
•Foes of the Fish nations are pushing IFQs to privatize the oceans under the control of multinational fishing companies squeezing out local "artisinal" fishers serving local consumers
•Developing nations export more than one-half of their catch to repay unsustainable debts. This leaves local populations threatened by depleted fisheries, loss of access, high prices and "dumping"
Subsidies Encourage Industrial Fishing
•The $70-80 billion fishing industry received approximately 25% of its total revenues from public subsidies.
•At current rates, the $4-5 billion a year longline industry can be estimated to receive upwards of $1 billion per year.
•The WTO has failed to enforce its own Article 25 requiring all nations to report its fishing subsidies. As of 1996, only 7-8% of global fishing subsidies were reported and much of this is suspected of being underreported.
Subsidies Keep an Unprofitable Industry Afloat
•The FAO estimated in 1992 that the $85 billion in costs for the global fleet outstripped sales of $70 billion.
•Loan guarantees, vessel buyouts, grants, fuel tax rebates, marketing promotions, port construction, tax credits and a long list of other subsidies have encouraged the overcapitalization of fleets with new technologies such as radar and freezers to fish in deeper waters for longer periods of time.
•Studies have shown that longline fleets in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico lose between $7000 to $23,000 per year.
•The WTO should not be allowed to expand its reach into fisheries and oceans.
•Foes of the Fish nations should clean their own house by axing subsidies that encourage artificial overcapacity of industrial fishing fleets.
•Foes of the Fish nations should funding and put real teeth into national and international ocean, fishery and biodiversity treaties, conventions and commissions that are working to prevent bycatch of non-target fish and endangered species (such as TEDs).
•Foes of the Fish nations should shift subsidies to encouraging small-scale sustainable fishing that serves local consumers and protects endangered marine species and coastal breeding habitats.
•The UN should impose an immediate moratorium on Pacific longline fishing to stop the annual devastation of millions of non-target and endangered species. This could be modeled after the existing closure around Hawaii and the 1992 UN driftnet ban.