18 Mar 2024 3 min read

Calling time on subsidised overfishing

By Alexander Burr

Something fishy has been going on with subsidies for decades. We're calling for urgent action to protect our oceans.


Every year, governments spend billions of dollars subsidising overfishing, undermining their own commitments to protect our oceans.

In 2018, global fishing subsidies amounted to an estimated $35.4 billion, and of this $22 billion was targeted at ‘capacity enhancement’. This means supporting uneconomical fishing, or, put another way, subsidising overfishing.1 Asia was the greatest subsidising region (55%), followed by Europe (18%) and North America (13%).2

Overfishing and unsustainable practices contribute to several of the key drivers of nature change identified by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. It worsens the spread of invasive species via ballast water, and exacerbates climate change as a result of species removal and algae blooming.

Overfishing is also closely linked to ‘bycatch’. Non-target species account for 10% of all global marine fisheries catch, and are a serious threat to endangered and protected species.3

Having government-funded programmes that degrade marine ecosystems is nonsensical and contradictory to government commitments. It demonstrates how policymaking can sometimes be disjointed. In this case, overfishing undermines international commitments and implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement, the High Seas Treaty and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF).

The devil in the detail

To tackle this issue, which has been bubbling away for decades, the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies aims to prohibit, reform and redirect the use of government subsidies that contribute to overfishing. It’s also the first-ever multilateral trade agreement focused on a sustainability issue.

In 2022, members reached an agreement – but with several important caveats.

The agreement deferred several key decisions, known as the ‘Additional Provisions’. This included use of the term ‘overfished’ rather than ‘overfishing’, leaving room for interpretation and weakening the agreement.

Also, the agreement is still not enforceable until it is ratified by two-thirds of the 166 WTO members. As of now 71 members have agreed, meaning we need another 39.4

Negotiators had intended to resolve most of the Additional Provisions at the 13th WTO Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi last month. Alas, short-term policymaking and conflicting priorities meant this didn’t happen, highlighting that just a small number of members can derail global negotiations of this type.

Our call for action

Given the detrimental impact of overfishing on the planet and the slow progress made on the issue so far, we are calling on policymakers to:

  1. Prioritise nature. We do not have long to meet our 2030 climate, nature and Sustainable Development Goal targets. We need policymakers to lay aside politics and stick to what they have committed to under the Global Biodiversity Framework and Paris agreements.
  2. Disallow exemptions. The end text must ensure subsidies do not support overfishing. The agreement risks being undermined otherwise.
  3. Ensure ratification. If we can get ratification by the middle of 2024, the ‘sunset clause’ of four years will come into effect. This will focus minds on agreeing the Additional Provisions.
  4. Act now. The WTO should arrange an ad-hoc meeting to agree the Additional Provisions and not wait for the 14th Ministerial meeting in 2026.
  5. Redirect. Utilise the freed-up funding for monitoring, enforcement and support for sustainable fishing management practices.


1. Source: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X19303677

2. Source: ibid.

3. Source: https://www.msc.org/what-we-are-doing/oceans-at-risk/biodiversity-and-fishing

4. Source: https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news24_e/fish_01mar24_e.htm

Alexander Burr

ESG Policy Lead

Alexander joined in 2019 and leads LGIM's ESG policy engagement across markets. Prior to this, he helped establish an impact fund that uses blended finance to invest in emerging markets. Before that, Alexander negotiated blended finance investments at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to support sustainable economic growth across Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and North Africa. He has held roles advising governments on alternative finance and established a nuclear safeguards organisation. Alexander holds a BSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Southampton, and further education at LSE, ICSA, CISL, and Birkbeck.

Alexander Burr