17 Mar 2020

Fishing industry reforms pushed back by Covid-19 response

6:10 pm on 17 March 2020

The Covid-19 coronavirus has got in the way of major reforms sought by the New Zealand fishing industry.

Fishing nets for trawling.

Photo: photo 123RF

It has caused the postponement of a major international conference to try to stop the fishing industry from being subsidised by governments.

The New Zealand government has long believed that subsidies paid by overseas governments to fishing companies encouraged the plunder of fish stocks on the open ocean, outside most countries' exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

In addition, they gave artificial assistance to this country's commercial rivals.

This view of the government has long been shared by fishing companies such as Sanford.

The matter gained impetus from previous meetings of ministers from member states of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The matter was then hoped to be finalised at the next ministerial meeting in Kazakhstan in June.

But the meeting has been postponed by the Kazakhstan Government, because of the virus.

A New Zealand diplomat in Geneva, David Walker, has been appointed to chair the WTO General Council.

He has been working to prepare for this meeting and has long argued that the campaign against fish subsidies was absolutely vital.

"It's a sustainability problem," Dr Walker said.

"I think something like 90 percent of global fish stocks are overfished, fished out or are being fished at too great a rate.

"To ensure that we have sustainable fisheries going forward we need to get to grips with the subsidies issue now, before it is too late."

The abolition of fish subsidies has been strongly supported by companies like Sanford.

The campaign also won support from a very famous voice, the naturalist, David Attenborough.

"We are paying huge sums of money, public money, to keep damaging and destructive fish activities afloat," Sir David told the Global Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland.

"Government subsidies are keeping fishing companies fishing, even when there are too few fish available for fishing to be profitable."

In a statement, New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said an agreement on fisheries subsidies in the WTO was a top priority.

"New Zealand will continue to work closely with other WTO Members, including using digital and telephone communication channels, to make progress on new rules to prohibit harmful fisheries subsidies," the ministry said in a statement.

"We look forward to concluding the fisheries subsidies negotiations by June, and to the revised date for (the deferred ministerial meeting) to be determined as soon as possible."

The World Bank estimated in 2017 that global fishing subsidies were worth $US35 billion ($NZ57b) a year.

China, the European Union, the United States, South Korea and Japan are the biggest subsiding countries.