04/19/2011 03:39 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2011

The Economics of Fishing Subsidies -- Destroying a Vital Global Enterprise

In recent years, the U.S. has worked diligently to stop overfishing by targeting its root cause -- harmful and economically-damaging fishing subsidies that have been undermining the bounty and viability of our world's fish. Ending these subsidies is the key to preserving a global commercial enterprise that has been vital to societies since the beginning of mankind.

Luckily, there is a tangible opportunity to reduce government subsidies that lead to global overfishing. The question is whether we will seize the chance.

Negotiations are currently underway at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to establish new rules on fisheries subsidies that would eliminate unfair and destructive policies, while ensuring a level playing-field and abundant resources for all fishermen.

An international agreement that limits global fishing subsidies would not only be a huge success for ocean health, but would also set a new framework for effective cooperation on trade and the environment.

The stakes are high for both the WTO and the oceans. A WTO fisheries subsidies deal is desperately needed -- and soon. Without it, the world's oceans become a casualty of the inability of a few countries to reach agreement in the Doha Round.

Just last month, a diverse group of countries released a statement where they said,

"there is clearly a great deal of concern about the overall state of play in the Doha Round at this time, but this should not distract us from the perilous state of world fisheries resources. We must not let a lack of progress elsewhere in the Round dampen our resolve to tackle fisheries subsidies. The issue is simply too important."

The long-term implications for failing to reach a successful agreement in the Doha talks are alarming. One WTO ambassador, Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand, boldly speaking on behalf of Argentina, Australia, Chile, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway and the US, to the membership, said plainly that

"the WTO's credibility on trade and environment issues is at stake, here. An outcome that appeared to discipline some subsidies, only to provide such extensive flexibilities that the status quo remains unchanged, would not be credible. A weak outcome calls into question the future ability of the WTO to tackle other trade and environment issues of global importance."

If the WTO is to complete a successful fisheries subsidies agreement in 2011 as part of the Doha trade round, the U.S. and the Administration need to lead the effort in building international support for a positive outcome.

Throughout the negotiations, there has been strong support in the U.S. to address fisheries subsidies. For example, in 2007, both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed resolutions placing the elimination of these detrimental fishing subsidies as a major priority. In 2008, a bipartisan group of twelve members of the House Ways and Means Committee called for the U.S. to make the successful outcome of the fishery subsidies negotiations a trade priority. And, in 2009, President Obama and U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Ron Kirk both called for a major reduction in these subsidies.

So what is stopping the U.S. from taking a more assertive stand now on the international stage?

Once again, it seems to be politics. Major fishing countries like the European Union, China and Brazil have continued to run up fishing subsidy totals into the tens of billions. These countries refuse to acknowledge that the only way to effectively mitigate the environmentally dangerous impact of fishing subsidies is by eliminating them. The U.S., as the world's largest economy, has the opportunity to command leadership on this issue and provide a way forward that is both economically and environmentally sustainable.

But they need to act now. The WTO members must agree to adopt binding and enforceable rules to reform subsidy practices among its 153 countries.