Members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) reaffirmed their commitment to work towards an agreement on negotiations on fisheries subsidies that undermine marine resources as well as the food security and livelihoods of fisheries-dependent populations.
Members agreed to use a draft consolidated document circulated by the Chair of the Negotiating Group as the starting point for negotiations in September 2020.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), almost 60% of assessed fish stocks are fully exploited and 34% of fish stocks are fished at unsustainable levels.
This overfishing contributes to a decline in the productivity of the fisheries sector and threatens fisheries’ sustainability, food security, employment opportunities, and livelihoods. There is strong evidence that certain subsidies contribute to overfishing and the depletion of fish stocks. In response, the WTO negotiations aim to address these harmful subsidies.
Conversations on fisheries subsidies within the WTO have been going on for 20 years, beginning at the 3rd Ministerial Conference of the WTO, held in Seattle in 1999. Formal negotiations started two years later as part of the “Doha Round” of trade liberalization talks.
After the adoption of the SDGs, which include SDG target 14.6 that sets a deadline of 2020 for eliminating subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and prohibiting certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing with special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries (LDCs), WTO members began submitting a series of new proposals to make progress on the negotiations.
Following discussion of these proposals at the WTO’s 11th Ministerial Conference, members agreed to continue to engage in negotiations with the aim of adopting an agreement by the end of 2019. In November 2019, members encountered difficulties in concluding negotiations but expressed their commitment to continuing discussions to complete negotiations.
In June 2020, the Chair of WTO negotiations on fisheries subsidies, Ambassador Santiago Wills (Colombia), introduced a draft consolidated text as a starting point to inform the final phase of negotiations. The draft text consolidates elements from facilitators’ working drafts and members’ proposals in three key areas: subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing; subsidies to the fishing of overfished stocks; and subsidies that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity.
The draft text also covers the new instrument’s scope and definitions, specifying that the type of subsidies apply only to wild marine capture fishing and fishing-related activities at sea and exclude subsidies on inland water fishing and aquaculture. The draft text further suggests definitions of fishing, fishing-related activities, and vessels provided under the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) as a basis for negotiations, a proposal that limits the scope of disciplines to activities “at sea,” which would likely exclude subsidies to pre- and post-harvest activities like processing or packaging onshore.
Heads of WTO delegations at the 21 July meeting of the Negotiating Group on Rules concerning the fisheries subsidies negotiations expressed their willingness to use the draft document as the starting point for the next phase of work on fisheries subsidies.
Some delegates highlighted a need to focus on fuel subsidies and whether subsidy prohibitions should cover programmes whose beneficiaries are not limited to the fisheries sector. Other common issues raised by members included which authorities and processes would determine instances of IUU fishing, whether and how to include a capping approach to subsidy amounts, how to design special and differential treatment while still “disciplining” large-scale industrial fishers, how to link subsidy prohibitions to the success of a member’s fisheries conservation programmes, and how to accommodate aid for fisheries in the event of natural disasters.
In addition, the US observed a need to address notification and transparency, noting that “transparency and accountability for individual Members’ subsidies are key to the success of any WTO fisheries subsidies agreement and to any real impact on sustainable fisheries.”
Heads of WTO delegations reaffirmed their commitment to work towards achieving an agreement by the end of 2020, with some delegations noting the uncertainties posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ambassador Wills said the Negotiating Group will be in continuous negotiating mode, beginning in September, and will hold four clusters of meetings between September and November, on the weeks of 14 September, 5 October, 2 November, and 30 November. Remote connections will be provided to enable virtual participation.
The Chair stated that the organization of the working group will take into consideration constraints posed by COVID-19, and expressed his confidence that members will achieve an “invaluable” outcome “for the WTO and the health of the world’s oceans.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, members had been working to conclude the fisheries subsidies negotiations at the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12), originally scheduled from 8-11 June in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. Due to the pandemic, MC12 has been postponed to 2021.