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July 27, 2006

The WTO Takes a Time-out

One of this week’s dramas on the world stage was the news from Geneva that the World Trade Organization was forced to break off the trade negotiations known as the Doha Development Round. Key players had reached an impasse on ever-prickly agriculture tariffs and farm subsidies and it was clear a breakthrough was not in sight. So the Director-General of the WTO recommended the move, which he later likened to a “time out” at a sporting event.

We can only hope that this is merely a time out. That’s because the Doha Round contains what is in our view the single biggest thing that could be done right now to save world fisheries from irreversible collapse: eliminating government subsidies that build overcapacity and drive overfishing around the globe.

The statistics are staggering. Worldwide, fisheries subsidies are estimated to amount to at least twenty percent of the value of the world fish catch. So it’s no surprise that the largess-laden fishing fleets have swollen to 250 percent of the size needed to fish in a sustainable fashion. And, leading scientists indicate that if current trends continue, the world’s fisheries will be beyond recovery within the next two decades.

If we do not take action now, the primary protein source for a billion people will soon disappear and the ecosystems the fish inhabit will be permanently impaired.

For these reasons, Oceana has been working alongside the normally commerce-focused denizens of WTO to advance the fisheries subsidies negotiations. And we’ve found many allies. True free traders are no fans of massive subsidies and we conservationists are no fans of overfishing, so we’ve formed a “coalition of free traders and fish huggers” to try an end these subsidies. (For example, I recently co-authored an op-ed in The Financial Times along with U.S. Council for International Business Vice Chairman Thomas Niles “Sustainable Fisheries Serve a Common Interest“)

I cannot overstate the importance of these negotiations. While it is frustrating that our WTO fortunes are to some extent tied to completely unrelated negotiations, we refuse to back down. This is an extraordinary opportunity to unite disparate interests behind a conservation issue that could have enormous near and long-term benefits to the health of our world’s oceans.

Quite frankly, in WTO circles, the conservation crowd has often been confused with the antiglobalization protestors that fill the streets outside the organization’s events. I can assure you that in this case we are full participants and are making a difference. Just this past week, I met with new U.S. Trade Ambassador Susan Schwab to press the fisheries negotiations and she responded with a very supportive public statement.

Veterans of WTO talks tell me that brinksmanship is part of the process, that each round suffers a few near-death experiences before an agreement is reached. We should all hope for renewed vigor in the Doha Round following this “time-out.” For whatever your feelings are about the WTO, know this: the fisheries subsidies negotiations could produce a huge win for the oceans and it is within our reach.

For more information about fisheries subsidies and Oceana’s work, please visit