Fishing for Answers: Illegal Fishing, Depleted Stocks, and the Need for WTO Fishing Disciplines

38 Pages Posted: 27 Dec 2021 Last revised: 4 May 2022

See all articles by Stephen Floyd

Stephen Floyd

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: December 22, 2021


There are no longer plenty of fish in the sea. One-third of global fish stocks are overfished beyond biologically sustainable levels, and fishing subsidies are the primary culprit. Such subsidies incentivize overfishing, foster illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and dangerously reduce global stocks. Moreover, diminished fishing stocks heighten food insecurity for vulnerable populations, engender economic instability, and increase the potential for interstate conflict. Indeed, fishing subsidies spawn challenges far larger than trade alone. They present an international problem, and only a multilateral solution will suffice.

Several international agreements have sought to address IUU fishing, and these efforts have helped to crystallize norms. But many are voluntary, non-binding agreements, and they lack the comprehensive scope and enforcement mechanisms an effective solution requires. The World Trade Organization (WTO) provides the ideal forum to address the root cause of IUU fishing head on, and member states reinvigorated negotiations to establish disciplines on fishing subsidies in 2015. Although negotiators failed to reach an agreement before a 2020 deadline and face significant hurdles, they reconvened in Geneva in February 2021. The Chair of the WTO Negotiating Group released a new draft consolidated text in May 2021, and observers remain cautiously optimistic about meetings the WTO Director convened in July.

An agreement represents the best opportunity for the international community to reduce IUU fishing and restore global fish stocks. To prove effective, it must meet three criteria: 1) narrowly limit the application of special and differential treatment (SDT) for developing states; 2) establish objective mechanisms for stock assessments and IUU fishing designations; and 3) set a narrow scope for dispute panels to review decisions. Ultimately, if WTO member states fail to reach consensus, subsidies will continue to deplete global fish stocks, diminish confidence in the multilateral system, and increase the potential for maritime conflict.

Keywords: WTO, WTO negotiations, subsidies, IUU fishing, illegal unreported and unregulated fishing, international trade, special and differential treatment

Suggested Citation

Floyd, Stephen, Fishing for Answers: Illegal Fishing, Depleted Stocks, and the Need for WTO Fishing Disciplines (December 22, 2021). Georgetown Journal of International Law, Vol. 52, No. 3, 2021, Available at SSRN:

Stephen Floyd (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

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