Trade policy for promoting a sustainable ocean economy

Jean Marie Paugam | Wednesday, 15 September 2021

It will not come as a surprise to you to learn that there is an inherent link between the ocean and international trade - to this day maritime transport accounts for 80 to 90 per cent of the international movement of goods - although you may well be interested to hear that there is also a profound link between the international trading system embodied by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the issue of ocean conservation.

This link is historic first of all. Negotiations for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) - the WTO's predecessor - took place at the same time and came to a conclusion almost simultaneously: the GATT in 1947 and the IUCN in 1948.

These two sets of negotiations were mutually beneficial, since the GATT took environmental issues into account by providing for an exception to international trade rules. In other words, the flow of goods and services may be brought to a halt for the sake of the environment and subject to good faith. This means that the trading system has recognised since its establishment that the value of the environment is greater than that of trade.

More importantly, and to return to the issue of the ocean, what did those referring to the conservation of natural resources mean by this at the time? Well, they firstly meant protecting the ocean or, more specifically, to quote the exact phrasing of the Havana Charter (the predecessor to the GATT), they meant the "measures taken in pursuance of any inter-governmental agreement which relates solely to the conservation of fisheries resources, migratory birds or wild animals". Indeed, 1946 had seen the establishment of a convention on the size of fishing nets and minimum fish size, as well as another on whaling.

So, moving on from this historical detour, where are we today? Well, practically in the same position! Protecting the oceans remains the WTO's number one environmental concern.

HOW CAN THE WTO CONTRIBUTE TO THIS: WTO Members have identified three major issues that have a direct bearing on the sustainable use of the oceans.

The first and most important issue is that of the negotiations on fisheries subsidies reform. These negotiations have been ongoing for 20 years. In 2015, they became part of a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 14.6) mandated by Heads of State, who instructed the WTO to reach an agreement. Concluding these negotiations, which are now in their final stage, is the Organization's number one priority and we hope that an agreement can be reached by the end of the year prior to our Ministerial meeting in November. The purpose of the agreement will be to prohibit subsidies to vessels engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and to reform the subsidies that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity, while taking into account the specific needs of developing countries through what we call "special and differential treatment".

This is a major environmental, human and economic challenge.

It is an environmental challenge, because the ocean covers 70 per cent of the world's surface, yet the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 33 per cent of catches are attributable to overfishing, thereby contributing to the decimation of stocks. The "Ocean Sentinel" project, an innovative study led by France, used albatrosses to detect vessels potentially engaging in illegal fishing and found that almost a third of boats switched off their trackers in the zone being studied. This is considerable.

It is a human challenge, because close to 3.0 billion people live near the coast and fish forms an extremely important part of diets. It is an economic challenge, because approximately 350 million jobs across the world are linked to marine catches and 90 per cent of fishers live in developing countries.

Reforming these harmful subsidies will thus contribute to improving the situation on these three fronts and may allow for these public funds to be reallocated to support sustainable blue?economy activities.

However, only the WTO can achieve this result. Why? Because the WTO is global. Fish do not respect borders and it would therefore be of little use to reform subsidies in one part of the world while allowing overfishing in another part. I would request everyone's support in encouraging the governments engaged in these negotiations to secure an ambitious outcome.

The second issue affecting ocean health is still emerging and concerns the fight against plastics pollution.

This issue has long been on the radar of many international organizations. I have seen terrifying estimations on display on the stands presenting this issue here at the IUCN Congress, such as one estimation that the weight of plastic waste produced every year is equivalent to the weight of all humans put together, or that its volume is equivalent to one waste truck being thrown into the sea every minute.

For two or three years now, there has been increased awareness surrounding this issue and around the fact that trade can contribute to both worsening and improving the situation. A group of our Members, led by China and Fiji, launched an initiative aimed at beginning discussions on this issue. However, this work has already highlighted the role of certain trade flows in plastics pollution, whether it be trade in plastics themselves or trade in goods containing plastics, such as cars, the composition of which is 50 per cent plastic.

Thanks to this work, we are beginning to better understand how trade policies could play a role in helping to tackle the problem. For example, they could help to reduce barriers to trade in goods with the potential to be used in plastics reprocessing and could examine the issue of the compatibility of regulatory standards on recycling or, again, that of harmful subsidies.

Finally, there are a number of ideas within the WTO that could be put into practice, with a more indirect contribution to protecting the ocean. For example, negotiations were held until 2016 on the liberalisation of trade in environmental goods, the idea behind which was to reduce customs duties and thereby facilitate the dissemination of the relevant technology. These goods include equipment for tackling marine pollution. These negotiations were broken off yet a number of governments would like to resume them.

Moreover, many efforts are being made by other organizations such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO), as well as by the private sector, to power boats with cleaner fuels and reduce sulphur emissions.

My key message is that, among all the instruments of international cooperation, trade policy instruments can and must be mobilised for the health of the ocean. In the short term, I repeat, this means successfully concluding the fisheries negotiations currently being held at the WTO.


Jean Marie Paugam is Deputy Director-General, World Trade Organization (WTO). The piece is slightly abridged version of his remarks made on 7 September at the close of the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille, France. www.wto.org