The Global Ocean Commission (GOC), an initiative composed of 17 government and business leaders, called for an international governance system for high seas management as it released its report entitled ‘From Decline to Recovery: A Rescue Package for the Global Ocean’. In order to strengthen high seas governance, the GOC is joining the call for a new agreement under UNCLOS to protect biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. “Less than one per cent of the high seas is currently protected, so it is crucial that this new agreement includes provisions for creating protected areas in the high seas,” says a GOC member.
In particular, the GOC urged governments to phase out fuel subsidies for fleets fishing on the high seas, including tuna fishing fleets, over the next 5 years.
The report highlights that industrial fleets from 18 countries are “plundering the high seas” through government subsidies, particularly on fuel for these fleets. Several EU member states are included in the list: Spain – which allocated US$1,073 million in fuel subsidies in 2013, France, UK, Denmark and Italy heavily subsidise fuel costs for their high seas fishing fleets. China, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and the USA also provide large subsidies to their high seas fleets. The NGO Oceana commented in a press release that without this financial support, industrial fleets would probably not fish the high seas.
During a press conference, the GOC co-chairs called on EU countries “to cease all financial support for deep sea fishing”. The European Fisheries Commissioner, Maria Damanaki, relayed the call to the member states. She emphasised that the new CFP, starting 1 January 2014, has ended subsidies that allowed fleets to increase their capacity, “but we must also reckon with subsidies from member states”. Her call was echoed by the former UK foreign secretary, co-chair of the GOC, David Milliband, who supported an end to subsidies for high seas fishing. The GOC report said governments should cap and eventually phase out fuel subsidies over 5 years. However, if oceans continue to decline, governments should consider banning industrial fishing on the high seas entirely, with the exception of those areas where action by regional fisheries management organisations is effective.
The GOC request to eliminate fuel subsidies for high seas industrial fishing – including industrial tuna fishing – comes at a time when WTO negotiations to reach an agreement to curb harmful fisheries subsidies have stalled. Several similar calls – by scientists and NGOs – have recently been made, in an attempt to unlock these negotiations by focusing measures on industrial high seas fishing, which, supposedly, would be supported by those developing countries not having industrial fleets. Although some references are made to “developing countries small-scale fisheries interests”, the GOC agenda is first and foremost an environmental conservation agenda: suppress subsidies to high sea fishing in the next 5 years or close them to industrial fishing (i.e. more realistically, design and implement high seas marine protected areas). It will be necessary for ACP countries to monitor developments of these discussions, and envisage the impacts of the designation of high seas protected areas on the sustainability and the revenues from tuna fisheries within their exclusive economic zones (EEZ), so that they can make their voices heard in this debate which, up to now, only involves developed countries having fishing activities on the high seas and environmental groups.