By Dr. Robert Ovetz
Marine Species Campaigner
Sea Turtle Restoration Project
This September, the U.S. is going to muddy the waters in Cancun, Mexico. At the upcoming World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Cancun, the U.S. and its allies, under the guise of getting tough on fishing subsidies, are pushing a plan to expand the authority of the WTO over our oceans and our national and local marine conservation laws.
We've already seen the WTO force the U.S, to gut its own Turtle Shrimp law, and, if the WTO gets more authority, the list of items on the chopping block will grow: marine protected areas, sustainable seafood labels, and bans on genetically modified fish.
A group of nations ironically calling themselves the "Friends of the Fish", which includes the US, Chile, New Zealand and whale killing nations Norway and Iceland, has sounded the alarm about the damage being done to our marine ecosystems by the estimated $54 billion in annual fishing subsidies. The only problem is that these Friends have long been the worst Foes of the Fish for decades.
Subsidies for everything from low interest loans for vessel upgrades to vessel bybacks (usually thought of as a way to reduce overcapacity), have driven the overcapitalization of the global fishing fleet. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, those fisheries progressing from fully fished and overexploited have exploded from a mere 5% in the 1970s to 75% only a few years ago.
Alongside the collapse of the historically abundant cod, bluefin tuna, swordfish and lobster fisheries, the 100 million year old Pacific Leatherback sea turtle has been driven to a mere 5% of its population just two decades ago by Pacific longline tuna and swordfish fleets. These fleets are estimated to be responsible for the annual killing of upwards of 4 million sharks, whales, porpoises, dolphins, billfish and seabirds alone.
When one peers behind the smokescreen, it is apparent that the Foes of the Fish's agenda is to use the WTO to gut what little regulatory oversight exists to implement conservation efforts aimed at saving our collapsing oceanic common asset.
In total, wealthy nations consume about 85% of global fish imports, one half of which comes from developing nations under pressure to make payments on their unwieldy international debts. This leaves increasingly less access to traditional fisheries by small-scale fisherpeople serving more than 1 billion people who rely on fish as their primary source of affordable protein. Many small Pacific fish rich island nations are alarmed by the Foes' interpretation of the payments these wealthy countries make for the right to fish in their territorial waters as subsidies.
At the heart of the Foes' management strategy has been self-governance by such industry heavy weights as the U.S. based group National Fisheries Institute that dominates the toothless regional fishery councils and is the official advisor to the U.S. Trade Representative on fisheries issues.
Expanding the illegitimate undemocratic authority of the WTO to the ocean and fisheries would only worsen our ocean crisis. In fact, the WTO recently weakened international standards by striking down a hard won U.S. law requiring the use of Turtle Excluder Devices by all shrimp vessels to qualify for import into the U.S.
Under the guise of getting tough on subsidies-only 7% of members nations have bothered to disclose their subsidies as long mandated by WTO rules-the WTO would go on a search and destroy mission that would also target such sustainable measures as Marine Protected Areas, time and area closures protecting spawning habitats, ecolabeling, non-transferable catch quotas, bans on genetically modified Frankenfish, and other conservation measures.
Rather than surrendering our conservation laws, we need immediate intensified effort to strengthen existing international conventions, such as the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea-which the U.S. has yet to ratify-that currently lack compliance, enforcement and funding. The most destructive fishing methods, such as Pacific longline fishing, should be placed under an immediate moratorium as the UN did with driftnet and purse seine fishing in the 1990s.
The WTO is the wrong place to go for our fisheries and oceans - unless we want to destroy them.