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Saudi Arabia and UAE back fishing subsidies ban

Sellers at the fish market in Jizan, Saudi Arabia. The kingdom brought in regulations in 2021 to curb overfishing Eric Lafforgue/Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect
Sellers at the fish market in Jizan, Saudi Arabia. The kingdom brought in regulations in 2021 to curb overfishing
  • World Trade Organization bid defeated
  • Attempt to curb industrial fishing fleets
  • Other GCC nations refuse to back proposal

The UAE and Saudi Arabia were the only GCC countries to back a failed bid by the World Trade Organization (WTO) to curb subsidies that contribute to overfishing and wider fishing sector overcapacity.

It had been hoped that the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies (AFS), which, according to WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has “been on the table” for the last two decades, would receive historic approval at the WTO meeting in Abu Dhabi.

Despite the deadline for talks being extended by almost a full day, the proposal failed to get the necessary two-thirds approval from the organisation’s members of more than 160 nations.

Countries were negotiating the second part of an international WTO agreement to curb government subsidies that, it is claimed, encourage industrial fishing fleets to empty the world’s oceans. 

The first part was agreed in 2022 and is due to come into force if and when enough countries ratify it.

The UAE signed up in May last year, while Saudi Arabia added its name to the list of backers at the start of last week.

“Overfishing of some species presents a significant threat to the UAE’s marine ecosystem, with some important fish stocks depleted beyond sustainable levels,” said Professor Michel J. Kaiser at Heriot-Watt University.

He said that the Hamour fish, in particular, is one of the most overexploited species and has seen a 90 percent decline since 1978.

It is calculated by the WTO that around a third of global stocks are overfished compared with 10 percent in 1974.  

Government funding – currently estimated at $35 billion per year globally – continues to aggravate the situation by enabling many fishing fleets to operate longer and farther at sea than they otherwise could, to the detriment of marine life.

In 2021, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture implemented executive regulations to prevent overfishing. However, the kingdom produced over 100,000 tonnes of fish in 2022, a four-fold increase in less than 10 years.

Bahrain, which was absent from the list of consenting countries, earlier this year announced a ban on foreign fishing vessels operating in its waters.

Last year, Bahrain announced a two-month ban on fishing kingfish, known as Chan’ad, from August through to October.

Fisheries economist Sebastien Metz told AGBI that Bahrain’s annual catch is around 15,000 tonnes and is mostly crab, shrimp and coastal fish.

“If Bahrain has the capacity to catch all the fish, it’s completely logical and it’s aligned with international regulations, they are in their rights to say to other nations, please don’t come,” he said.

Oman’s name was also missing from the AFS deal. As of 2020, the sultanate’s fishing industry caught around 83 percent of all fish in the GCC region, according to Statista, when the total amount of fish caught between the bloc of six countries was 3.5 million tonnes.

One country blocked the comprehensive agreement on banning harmful fisheries subsidies worldwide, european commissioner for trade Dombrovskis Valdis said on Friday, later naming it as India and calling it “unfortunate”, according to a report from Reuters.

“In the second wave of fisheries subsidies negotiations, you narrowed some outstanding gaps, but several more remain,” said Okonjo-Iweala. 

“While I had hoped that we could finish these negotiations in Abu Dhabi, you have prepared the ground for its conclusion at the next Ministerial Conference, if not earlier.”

Global fishing stocks have also been impacted by the widespread construction of land reclamation projects, which are popular across the GCC, from Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah to Diyar Al Muharraq in Bahrain and Shebala Island in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea.

Such developments are known to cause degradation of coastal wetlands resulting in the loss of habitats for species and a loss in marine biodiversity, according to a report from Marine Policy, a UK-based journal of ocean policy studies.

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