By Magie Rodríguez (AIDA) and Ernesto Fernández Monge (The Pew Charitable Trusts)
Fishing is fundamental to the Latin American economy and, for of our region’s people, their way of life. It’s a centuries-old industry at risk.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the region produces 21.5 million metric tons of fish each year, a quarter of the world's annual production. Roughly 2.3 million people are involved in fishing activities.
However, the industry is losing out to aggressive foreign fleets, mostly from Europe and Asia, fishing within Latin America's exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and in areas just outside them. Unlike domestic vessels, these fleets often benefit from substantial funding from their home governments, which allows them to fish outside their own countries' waters. These fishing subsidies, intended to increase capacity, are harmful. They pay for fuel and other expenses, artificially reduce the cost of fishing, and allow fleets to fish in areas where it would otherwise be unprofitable to do so.
After more than two decades of talks, the 164 member governments of the World Trade Organization (WTO) are closer than ever to agreeing on a new globally binding treaty that would curb harmful subsidies that allow fleets to fish both in other countries' waters and on the high seas.
Fishing offshore, on the periphery of another nation's waters, can harm a country's fisheries in part because it allows foreign vessels to catch migratory species, such as tuna or billfish, before they enter the EEZ.
As trade ministers prepare to meet in Geneva for a WTO ministerial conference June 12-15, Latin American leaders must push for a fisheries subsidies agreement that will help their countries' fishermen better compete with foreign fleets. To do so, the agreement should eliminate all capacity-enhancing subsidies that prop up so-called distant-water fishing and allow more fishing than the market would otherwise sustain.
Each year, governments around the world dole out $22 billion in harmful subsidies to fisheries and, of that amount, nearly two-thirds comes from just six countries and the European Union. About one-third of that amount, $7.2 billion, is targeted to help countries fish in other nations' EEZs and offshore at the edge of those territorial waters, according to a new research-based tool developed by scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The increase in distant-water fishing is driven by a sad reality: having depleted fish stocks in their own waters, major fishing nations are looking elsewhere to fill their nets. Ecuador's Galapagos Islands made headlines last year when research revealed that in just one month, 300 Chinese vessels spent 73 thousand hours fishing off the EEZ surrounding the Galapagos.
In addition, the tool shows that, for example, 180 vessels from just four countries (China, South Korea, Chinese Taipei and Spain) spent a total of 84 thousand hours fishing in Argentina's EEZ in 2018. That's the equivalent of 9.6 years on the water. That undertaking was made possible by nearly $92 million in harmful subsidies.
Encouragingly, leaders across the region have long supported reducing subsidies in distant waters: Argentina, Chile and Uruguay co-sponsored a WTO proposal in 2019 to ban such subsidies and, in July 2021, Uruguay's foreign minister stated that such a ban would have "enormous potential to have a significant impact on the state of the oceans and the livelihoods of fishing communities."
However, major fishing nations are seeking to water down the text of the potential WTO agreement so that they can continue fishing in other countries' waters.
That’s why Latin American trade ministers must continue to push for the elimination of subsidies in distant waters, helping to ensure that fish from their waters primarily reach their vessels, restore competitive advantage to the region's fishermen, and sustain a vital industry—and livelihood—across the continent.