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Richard Florizone is president and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and President Emeritus of Dalhousie University.

John Risley is the co-founder of Clearwater Seafood and Chair of Canada’s Ocean Supercluster.

World leaders were supposed to put forward a landmark agreement last December that would end overfishing. But after two decades of stop-start negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO), the deadline was missed once again, with talks slated to continue into 2021.

The ocean can’t afford another missed deadline.

Harmful subsidies, together with illegal fishing, are depleting marine fish stocks at an alarming rate. Nearly 90 per cent of global marine fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted.

Here in Canada, we have an intimate relationship with the ocean. We know what happens when fishing pushes too far, having witnessed the Newfoundland cod-fishery collapse in the early 1990s, which took tens of thousands of jobs with it.

This isn’t just unsustainable, it’s damaging to the economy, biodiversity and people’s health.

Global economic losses from illegal and unreported marine fishing are estimated at $29-billion annually. Governments dole out nearly the same amount each year in capacity-enhancing fishing subsidies, or those that enable increased activity through initiatives such as gas-tax exemptions or support for boat construction and repair. And at least half the world’s population relies on marine life as a source of dietary protein – overfishing puts their survival at risk.

Public pressure for the WTO to “reel in a deal” is mounting, but the issue has received little attention in Canada. This must change, especially as we have a responsibility to lead in pushing these negotiations forward and securing a meaningful agreement.

Our government should encourage the world’s largest subsidizing nations to commit to ambitious limits on programs that lead to overcapacity and overfishing. Canada has always played a leading role in securing landmark international agreements to protect our natural environment and must do so again.

It bears noting that while multilateral agreements are a key piece of the puzzle, so too is innovation. Business and philanthropic leaders must act together to bring to scale the pioneering technological solutions to do this, such as artificial intelligence, satellite tracking systems and surveillance cameras, many of which are being developed here in Canada.

Implementing this technology will play a big part in monitoring boat activity and dissuading illegal fishing, and today, we are on the cusp of being able to automatically track the activities of all large fishing vessels, with or without their co-operation.

But while new technology may help, it won’t be effective as long as the penalties for being caught aren’t stiff enough – subsidies are playing a significant role in the illegal fishing happening with increasing frequency in protected coastal areas around the Galapagos Islands and Palau.

This is where the new rules at the WTO can help. We need all Canadians to call on WTO member governments to withdraw subsidies from marine fishers found acting illegally and require governments to refrain from providing any that lead to overfishing of marine resources.

Canadians understand that the ocean’s bounty is not inexhaustible, so let us act on our shared values. Our future, and that of billions of people around the planet, depend on the continuing ability of fisheries to nourish and employ people, and the ocean’s ability to regulate the planet’s climate. Supporting sustainable fisheries everywhere is the right thing to do.

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