There are plenty of fish in the sea is an expression that can be traced back at least to the 16th century. Traditionally it is used to console people after a break-up, suggesting that there are plenty of other potential partners out there.

The problem is that there are actually not that many fish left in the sea. Now I’m talking about real fish, not partners. Since 1970 we have experienced a decline in marine species populations by 49%. 29% of all fish stocks are overfished and 61% are fully fished. Some estimates show that in 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our seas.

It is a strong priority for Sweden to change these trends. We are engaged in the work with Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG 14) on oceans, and are organising a major conference, The Ocean Conference, in New York in June together with Fiji. The ambition is to get countries to work together to fulfil the targets in SDG 14 (which you can read about here, here or maybe here).

Many things need to be done in order for us to reach the targets set up in SDG 14. One of the major issues is that we today have a global overcapacity in our fishing fleets. In many cases these fishing fleets have been, and still are, heavily subsidised by governments. That is why SDG 14:6 is such an important target, since it states that we must eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fisheries, and prohibit subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing.

As is often the case this is easier said than done. The issue is complicated and the fact that fisheries is such an important part of not only commercial activities, but also for food security and nutrition, makes things even more difficult. It is a challenge to devise rules applicable both for large scale industrial fisheries and more traditional coastal fisheries.

Negotiations on fisheries subsidies have been going on in the WTO for many years. Some progress has been made but not enough to reach an agreement. But we do see a stronger engagement from more countries than before and a large majority of WTO members want to get a deal on fisheries subsidies at the ministerial conference in Buenos Aires in December this year. If so, that would be a major contribution to fulfilling SDG 14.

For this reason Sweden organised a briefing together with Fiji and UNCTAD in Geneva on Monday the 16th. The idea was to make the connection between The Ocean Conference and the negotiations in the WTO. Judging by the attendance and interest for this issue in Geneva, we are not alone in making this connection.

We still have a long way to go and many hurdles to get over before we have a multilateral deal on fisheries subsidies. But we do see progress and hopefully there is enough political will to push an agreement through.

It would be sad if we in the future had to comfort heartbroken people by telling them that there is still plenty of plastic in the sea. It just doesn’t have the same ring to it.