'What about us?' Small fishing communities call for support at crucial WTO meeting

Advocates say talks on subsidies need to address industrial fleets that trawl the seas

Olencio Simoes, general secretary of the National Fishworkers' Forum in Goa, at the WTO event in Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh / The National
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Representatives of small-scale fishing communities say they are struggling to stay afloat.

Advocates for fisherfolk in countries from India to Indonesia say they are often living below the breadline and cutting subsidies abruptly is not the answer.

Speaking during the World Trade Organisation's Ministerial Conference event in Abu Dhabi, they say small-scale fishermen are not causing the depletion of stocks; subsidies they receive are crucial for their survival; and the main drivers of overfishing – larger industrial-scale fleets – need to be tackled properly.

We need to find a mechanism to address the very serious decline of fish stocks
Marco Forgione, international trade expert

“The negotiations with respect to fisheries play a very important role, simply because out of almost 100 million fishermen in India, both directly and indirectly involved, 60 per cent live below the poverty line,” said Olencio Simoes, general secretary of the National Fishworkers' Forum based in Goa, who campaigns for the livelihood of the marginalised workers.

“We are on the poverty line," he said. "We need to come out from the poverty line first. It is a matter of survival.”

Fishing subsidies are in the spotlight at the four-day event, where negotiators are trying to clinch a deal to safeguard fishing stocks, as billions of dollars a year are spent on acts that are widely seen as encouraging inefficient and harmful practices.

At least 34 per cent of global stocks are overfished, the WTO said. Compounding this is the fact they often go to the larger trawlers that take huge catches threatening stocks over small-scale fisheries that bolster local livelihoods and often use more sustainable practices.

WTO countries' ministers looks to future in Abu Dhabi

WTO countries' ministers looks to future in Abu Dhabi

The 164-member WTO in 2022 agreed on a landmark deal to prohibit subsidies on such practices as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. It still needs to be formally ratified by two-thirds of its members, but that is thought likely soon.

A fresh round of talks under way in Abu Dhabi is focused on subsidies surrounding overcapacity and overfishing, along with addressing the needs of developing and underdeveloped country members.

Advocates who spoke to The National, however, say it is not small fisherman causing the problem. Mr Simoes said small-scale coastal fishing communities he worked with are under pressure trying to compete with huge trawlers and are also reeling from “industrial pollution”, port expansions and extreme weather such as cyclones that can disrupt fishing patterns.

“Sewage, which is dumped into the ocean, is one of the big contributors," he said.

Mr Simoes painted a difficult picture of life on the ground for small-scale fishermen in Goa where sail boats are used often.

He said families are applying for Portuguese passports and giving up on the tradition, referring to how certain citizens of Goa can apply for a passport owing to its history as a colony of the European country, and that the oceans will be exploited further if small-scale fishermen are forced out.

“All we want is that our subsidies cannot stop," he added.

Fikerman Saragih, of the Kiara fisherfolk organisation in Indonesia, said his community was facing similar issues, with small fishermen trying to compete with the larger trawlers.

He highlighted other problems such as land reclamation for the tourist industry, sea mining for metals and climate change.

“I think it's a hard situation,” said Mr Saragih, calling for subsidies to stay. "Small-scale fisheries only catch to eat fish and can sell just a few kilos."

Adam Wolfenden, a campaigner from the Pacific Network on Globalisation, said there was "good will" at the talks, tempered by concern they will fall short and "fail to rein in the problem of large-scale fishing".

"There isn't enough focus on prohibitions for those fleets that are part of the problem of overfishing," said Mr Wolfenden.

"We see a lot of concerns around distant-water fishing. A lot of that fishing is reliant upon subsidies.

"There has been talk to make the prohibitions target large-scale fleets. Unfortunately that has largely been pushed back against by, unsurprisingly, those countries with large-scale fleets."

Negotiators in Abu Dhabi are trying to bridge the gap and address the concerns of developing and least-developed country members.

“Subsidies are by their very nature market-distorting,” said Marco Forgione, an international trade expert and director general of the Institute of Export and International Trade.

“The aim of the WTO is to establish an agreement whereby there is not an incentive to overfish, which is what subsidies tend to provide,” he said.

Mr Forgione said he had “great sympathy” for the point the small-scale fishing representatives were making, as they were “disproportionately affected” with overfishing “primarily down to the large-scale industrial fishing”.

“We back the principle of the removal of subsidies. But we do need to look at how we support the development of those small-scale fisher people who are impacted … to encourage them to undertake their activities sustainably but without it being a market-distorted intervention,” said Mr Forgione.

“We need to find a mechanism to address the very serious decline of fish stocks.”

Updated: February 28, 2024, 4:16 AM