The drive for a workable 'middle way' - the linking of free trade with environmental benefit - has started to converge around a single issue: saving the world's troubled fish stocks. Several prominent World Trade Organisation members are pushing for quick action to scrap fishing industry subsidies and diplomats believe a firm agenda could be announced by the end of this week's ministerial meeting in Seattle. Free-traders are eyeing fishing as one of the quickest and most striking ways of silencing the WTO's growing band of critics, by proving truly free trade can help save threatened species. Environmentalists, meanwhile, are hoping to notch an early victory in their bid to be listened to. 'There is a real coming together of various interests on this one . . . if it is successful there will be something in it for everyone. For free-traders it is really powerful stuff. We will be able to shut up a lot of critics,' one Asian diplomat said. Driving action is an array of stark statistics. At least 60 per cent of the world's fish stocks are either over-fished or fished to the limit, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates. Already Atlantic cod is considered 'commercially extinct' - meaning stocks are so depleted that its recovery cannot be predicted - and the biggest and fastest fish in the sea, the giant bluefin tuna, could soon follow. At the same time, world catches are reaching all-time highs, nearing 87 million tonnes, as more and more big boats head out, subsidised by an estimated US$20 billion annually. Quite simply, subsidies mean too many boats are seeking too few fish. One UN estimate adopted by the WTO suggests there are 2.5 times the number of boats that could fish the seas sustainably. The United States, Argentina, Peru, the Philippines, New Zealand, Australia and Iceland on Monday revealed they were pushing for urgent action to cut subsidies. 'Reducing fishing subsidies is a 'win-win' situation for the United States and the World,' US Commerce Secretary William Daley said. The European Union, South Korea and Japan - the latter two both extensive fishing subsidisers - have yet to come on board but diplomats say it could be an easy move to make to help them bargain in other areas. David Schorr, director of global sustainable commerce for the World Wide Fund for Nature, said a clear opportunity was brewing. 'I think fishing is a very visible one for people to latch on to compared to say the evils of subsidies in agriculture. Subsidies mean less fish and that is a scary thing for everyone,' he said. But Mr Schorr warned that any growing optimism must be tempered by the fact subsidies could be difficult to lift despite any resolution or timetable issued this week. 'Hidden fishing subsidies is a bureaucrat's dream. You can quietly subsidise fuel, boat-construction and even help pay for foreign fishing quotas for your fleets,' he said. 'Cracking down could be very hard.' Hong Kong's own fishing fleets are not considered subsidised, along with fleets in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The mainland, meanwhile, remains something of mystery, with unofficial subsidies existing through a web of state-owned firms. The drive reflects a sudden sensitivity on the WTO's part regarding fishing and the environment. Dozens of protest groups in Seattle are drawing attention to what has become known as the 'Turtle Affair' after a controversial WTO ruling against the US. The US had sought to ban imports of shrimp caught with a certain type of net that also killed endangered sea turtles. However, loopholes allowed several nations to claim discrimination and win the case.