The world's fish stocks are depleting fast, with one-third of the stocks being exploited at biologically unsustainable levels. Several species face the risk of extinction and several others have been declared extinct, with nearly 16 freshwater species declared extinct in 2020 alone.
Overfishing is a major contributor to this alarming decimation of aquatic life. Incentivised by government subsidies, it is a threat not only to biodiversity but also to the livelihoods of millions of people around the world.
Recognising the threat to aquatic life, governments across the world have been deliberating on ways to promote sustainable practices for fishing.
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The World Trade Organization (WTO) is also negotiating on fisheries subsidies since 2001. Started with the aim to "clarify and improve" existing WTO disciplines on fisheries subsidies, the mandate of the negotiations was elaborated in 2005 to call for prohibiting certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing.
The fisheries subsidies agreement would be an important agenda item in the WTO Ministerial Conference in early December, as the WTO has indicated that it is moving closer to an agreement that could set new rules for the global fisheries industry and limit the government subsidies that promote unsustainable fishing.
India has acknowledged the need for such an agreement in the light of overfishing by several countries while highlighting the need for "common but differentiated responsibilities" so that the countries providing the largest subsidies and incentivising unsustainable fishing practices have a greater onus of cutting their subsidies and fishing capacities.
India is among the largest fish producing countries, and the agreement could have a significant impact on the fisheries sector in India. India accounts for more than 7% of the world's fish production and is also emerging as an important exporter of marine products. In 2020-21, India exported nearly $3.2 billion of marine products, accounting for around 2% of India's merchandise exports and more than 14% of India's exports of agriculture and allied products.
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According to ITC Export Potential Map, India further has an untapped export potential of $6.3 billion in fish and fish products. Clearly, the sector would have a significant role in the achievement of the ambitious $100 billion target for agricultural exports set by the government and improvement in agricultural income.
At a time when the industry is at the cusp of an upward growth trajectory, the strict definition of prohibited subsidies in the draft text of the fisheries agreement could impede the future development of the sector in India.
Unlike several countries where fishing is carried out at an industrial scale, Indian fisheries and aquaculture is characterised by small scale and artisanal fishers that need concerted policy and financial support. Prohibiting subsidies for modernisation/acquisition of vessels, income support, purchase of fuel, ice or bait, among others, as proposed in the draft agreement, may not be feasible in the Indian context, given the salience of the sector for livelihood in coastal and rural communities.
The current fishing practices in India and several other developing countries are also relatively sustainable, warranting a case for differentiated responsibility.
This is evinced by India's performance in the parameter of 'Fish Stock Status' in the Yale Environmental Performance Index.
The parameter of Fish Stock Status estimates the percentage of a country's total catch that comes from overexploited or collapsed stocks, considering all fish stocks within a country's exclusive economic zone (EEZs).
Countries are ranked in descending order of sustainability in fishing practices, with countries higher in the ranking having the least stock exploitation in their EEZs. India ranks 23rd among 109 countries on the parameter, fairing much better than other countries such as Indonesia (rank 43), the USA (61), Chile (81), Japan (104), Thailand (95), Russia (91) and Australia (105).
Moreover, according to recent estimates, only a small number of countries undertake fishing in waters beyond their national jurisdiction ("high seas"), engendering severe marine threat.
Five countries- China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Spain together account for nearly two-thirds of the global high-sea fishing revenues. In many of these countries, high-sea fishing is profitable only because of subsidies provided by governments.
There are considerable differences in the type of fishing practice across countries, the kind and level of subsidy support extended by the governments, and the effect of these subsidies on aquatic life.
Straitjacketing all subsidies to the fisheries sector needs serious consideration, given its significant impact on livelihoods in countries like India and the need for adequate policy and financial support.
(The author is an economist with the Export-Import Bank of India. Views are personal.)
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