Ambitious subsidy reform by the WTO presents opportunities for ocean health restoration


The World Trade Organization (WTO) is in a unique position to deliver on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14.6 by reforming global fisheries subsidies in 2020. Yet, a number of unanswered questions threaten to inhibit WTO delegates from crafting a smart agreement that improves global fisheries health. We combine global data on industrial fishing activity, subsidies, and stock assessments to show that: (1) subsidies prop up fishing effort all across the world’s ocean and (2) larger subsidies tend to occur in fisheries that are poorly managed. When combined, this evidence suggests that subsidy reform could have geographically-extensive consequences for many of the world’s largest fisheries. While much work remains to establish causality and make quantitative predictions, this evidence informs the rapidly-evolving policy debate and we conclude with actionable policy suggestions.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    The Eastern Indian Ocean is an outlier. We believe that the subsidy intensity of fishing calculated for this region to likely be an overestimate because a disproportionately high proportion of industrial vessels fishing in this region do not carry AIS.


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This work was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. We also thank the many WTO delegates that have provided invaluable feedback.

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Correspondence to Christopher Costello.

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Handled by Carolyn Lundquist, University of Auckland Institute of Marine Science, New Zealand.

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Costello, C., Millage, K., Eisenbarth, S. et al. Ambitious subsidy reform by the WTO presents opportunities for ocean health restoration. Sustain Sci (2020).

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  • Fisheries subsidies
  • Overfishing
  • Sustainable development goals
  • World trade organization
  • Fisheries management