Story | 14 Sep, 2021

WTO Deputy Director-General shows the long and important relationship between ocean conservation and world trade

World Trade Organisation Deputy Director-General, Jean-Marie Paugam, gave a fresh perspective on ocean conservation by explaining the very close relationship between the international trade system represented by the WTO and the issue of ocean preservation, something many conservationists and the general public may not yet be aware of.

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Photo: Cherie Bridges, The Ocean Race

This is an unofficial translation from the original French speech. For the original, please see here: Le directeur général adjoint de l'OMC parle de la longue et importante relation entre la conservation des océans et le commerce mondial | UICN (

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you for inviting me to speak on behalf of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on the role of international trade in promoting a sustainable ocean economy.

You will not be surprised to learn that there is a consubstantial relationship between the sea and international trade - even today, maritime transport accounts for 80 to 90% of the international movement of goods - but perhaps you will be interested to discover that there is also a very close relationship between the international trade system represented by the WTO and the issue of ocean preservation.

This relationship is first of all historical. The initiative of the International Union for the Protection of Nature and that of the GATT - the forerunner of the WTO - were negotiated in parallel and came to fruition almost simultaneously, the GATT in 1947, the IUCN in 1948.

And these two negotiations were mutually beneficial, since the environmental issue was taken into account in the GATT in the form of an exception to the rules of international trade: in other words, in the name of the environment and subject to good faith, we have the right to put "red lights" on the flow of goods and services. This means that from the outset the trading system has recognized that the environment has a higher value than trade. However, the word "environment" did not exist at the time, at least not in the contemporary sense, and this environmental exception was formulated in the exact terms that founded the IUCN, namely "conservation of natural resources". So the environmental exception of the GATT, if I may say so, was largely inspired by the IUCN.

Better still, and here I come back to the question of the ocean, what did we have in mind when we talked about the conservation of natural resources at the time?

First of all, it was the protection of the sea

or, more precisely, if I quote the exact terms of the Havana Charter (the forerunner of GATT), "measures taken in application of intergovernmental agreements whose sole purpose is the conservation of fishery resources, the protection of migratory birds or wild animals".  In 1946, there was a convention on the size of fishing nets and minimum sizes of fish and another on whaling. 

So what the GATT negotiators had in mind were precisely these first international conventions on the environment that had to do with the protection of fisheries resources.

So where are we today after this historic detour? Well, almost at the same point!

The protection of the oceans remains the number one environmental concern of the WTO.  

But there has been a fundamental progress since then: the organization no longer looks at the subject as only a justification for an exception to trade rules, but also wishes to play an active role in the preservation of the oceans.

How can it contribute to this? This brings me to the heart of the matter.

There are three main issues identified by our members that directly affect the sustainable use of the oceans. I am addressing them in order of decreasing maturity because they are not at the same level.

The first, and most important, is the negotiations for the reform of fisheries subsidies.

These negotiations have been going on for twenty years. In 2015 they were raised to the level of a sustainable development goal, SDG 14.6, mandated by the Heads of State, who instructed the WTO to reach an agreement. The conclusion of this negotiation, which is now in its final phase, is the organization's number one priority and we hope that an agreement can be reached by the end of the year, before our ministerial meeting next November. It will aim to prohibit subsidies to vessels engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and to reform subsidies that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity, while taking into account the special needs of developing countries, under what is called special and differential treatment.

This is a major environmental, human and economic issue.

Environmental, because the ocean covers 70% of the earth's surface but the FAO estimates that 33% of the catches correspond to overfishing, contributing to the disappearance of stocks. An original research conducted by France, the Ocean Sentinel project, which used Albatrosses to detect vessels likely to practice illegal fishing, showed that nearly one third of the boats turned off their beacons in the area of the experiment: this is considerable.  

Human, because nearly 3 billion people live near the coast and fish is extremely important in the diet. 
Economic, because about 350 million jobs in the world are linked to marine catches and 90% of fishermen live in developing countries. 

So reforming these harmful subsidies will help improve the situation on all three fronts, not to mention the possibility of reallocating these public funds to support sustainable activities in the blue economy. 

But only the WTO can achieve this result. Why? Because it is global. Fish do not respect borders, so there is little point in reforming subsidies in one part of the world if the other part is allowed to overfish.  If I had only one message to deliver here at the IUCN Congress, it would be to ask for everyone's support in encouraging the governments engaged in these negotiations to achieve an ambitious outcome.

The second issue affecting the health of the oceans is still emerging. It is the fight against plastic pollution. 

This issue has been identified for a long time by many international organizations, including UNEP and the Basel Convention. You know the seriousness of the situation, we speak of "7th continent". On the stands that address this issue, here at the IUCN Congress, I have seen terrifying estimates such as the one that estimates that the weight of plastic waste produced each year is equivalent to that of the whole of humanity, or that it represents the volume of a garbage truck thrown into the sea every minute.

For the last two or three years, there has been an awareness of this issue and of the fact that trade can play a role in both the deterioration and the improvement of this situation. At the initiative of China and Fiji, a small group of our members have launched an initiative to start a dialogue on this issue. This work is exploratory, is not a negotiation and is still being conducted by only a minority of WTO members. 

But it has already highlighted the role of certain trade flows in plastic pollution, whether it is trade in plastic itself, or trade in goods incorporating plastic, such as cars, which are made of 50% plastic. 

Through this work we are beginning to better understand how trade policies might play a role in helping to tackle the problem: for example, by helping to reduce barriers to trade in goods that might be used in plastic reprocessing; also by looking at the issues of compatibility of regulatory standards for recycling or, again, the issue of harmful subsidies.

This week we also hosted a preparatory meeting at the WTO for the UN Environment Assembly in early 2022, which aims to launch a global negotiation on the plastics issue. Mr. Peter Thomson was there. So this is a conversation that is growing within the WTO, it could lead to new initiatives that could directly contribute to improving the health of the oceans. 

Finally, there are a number of ideas within the WTO that could be mobilized, more indirectly, for the ocean cause.

For example, until 2016 there was a negotiation on the liberalization of trade in environmental goods: the idea is to lower customs duties and thus facilitate the dissemination of the corresponding technologies. Among these goods we can identify a number of equipment to fight against marine pollution. This negotiation has been interrupted but several governments would like to re-launch it. 

In addition, many efforts are being made by other organizations, such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the private sector, to fuel ships with cleaner fuels and reduce sulfur emissions. The CMA-CGM group based here in Marseille recently explained to me all the initiatives it had taken in this direction. These are also efforts that could be presented in the framework of the discussions on the environment at the WTO. 

So, I'll stop here. My central message is that among all the instruments of international cooperation, the instruments of trade policy can and must be mobilized for the health of the oceans. In the short term, I repeat, this requires a success in the fisheries negotiations currently being conducted at the WTO. 

Thank you for your attention.