WTO Fisheries Chair Pauses for Reflection on Draft Text

6 April 2011

With less than three weeks remaining before a target date for the chairs of WTO negotiating committees to submit revised draft agreement texts in the Doha Round trade talks, a session of the Negotiating Group on Rules witnessed strong statements on the need for disciplines on government support to the fisheries sector, as well as a new submission on developing countries' interests.

At a 1 April informal meeting of the group, the chair, Ambassador Dennis Francis of Trinidad and Tobago, outlined the "incremental" progress made in several informal plurilateral sessions on fisheries subsidies he had conducted during the preceding week. The sessions focused on general disciplines, notification and surveillance, dispute settlement, transitional provisions, and special and differential treatment for developing countries (S&DT). Additionally, the "friends of the chair" - individuals who have been appointed to work on the issues of reciprocal and shared access, fisheries management, and assignment of fishing rights - as well as "contact groups" working on fuel subsidies, income support, and artisanal and small-scale fishing also presented and discussed their final reports.

Francis said that the ability to move forward on fisheries subsidies disciplines depends greatly on progress in the overall Doha Round negotiations, which have been stalling as the Easter target for revised texts approaches. Noting that he may nevertheless be called upon to provide a text by Easter, the chair said he needed a period for reflection on possible avenues that could bridge differences. Francis said he would not be calling any more meetings in April nor would he accept any bilateral meetings on anti-dumping, subsidies, and fisheries subsidies after this week.

Diverse group calls for urgent action

Speaking on behalf of Argentina, Australia, Chile, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway and the US, Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand said the so-called "friends of fish" expect ambitious rules limiting fisheries subsidy payments to be a key result of the rules negotiations. He said members should not let lack of progress in other parts of the Round deter them from pushing ahead on the issue. Walker pointed to the recently released FAO report "The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2010," which states that 85 percent of global fish stocks are either fully or over exploited, and said the issue is simply too important.

"The WTO's credibility on trade and environment issues is at stake here," Walker said. "A weak outcome calls into question the future ability of the WTO to tackle other trade and environment issues of global importance."

The group's statement called for a strong prohibition and strong disciplines on fisheries subsidies, after weeks of attempts by countries such as China, Brazil, Korea, and Japan to introduce various exceptions. Walker also said the group endorses the architecture of the previous chair's 2007 text.

Environmental organisations applauded the initiative by the friends of fish. "Today's call clearly demonstrates that there is strong commitment for fisheries subsidies rules that serve global interests and not only protect narrow self concerns," said Courtney Sakai, senior campaign director for the Washington-based green group Oceana. "The WTO has a real and tangible opportunity to reduce global overfishing. The question is if it will seize this chance."

Developing country concerns highlighted

In a suggestion on how to move forward, Chilean Ambassador Mario Matus said that members should first agree on a general prohibition and then discuss possible exceptions afterwards.

Marion Vernese Williams of Barbados countered that small and vulnerable coastal states that are not responsible for overfishing should be allowed to support their nascent fishing industries. She said because small island countries have no hinterlands and depend only on their fish resources, blocking support for their fishing-dependent communities would be a travesty in a development-focussed Round.

Miguel Carbo Benites of Ecuador said that his country's joint proposal with Egypt underlines the crucial need for technical assistance in the fisheries sector. Egypt said that assistance should cover stock assessment, fisheries management, and fulfilling notification requirements. The submission found support from fisheries subsidy watchers who say it contains recommendations that most developing countries have sought for some time. Environment group WWF, which follows the Doha Round fisheries subsidies talks closely, said the proposal "gets the WTO in the right direction" and is a concrete way of ensuring relevant institutions are able to work together.

Brazil said that fisheries subsidies contribute to overcapacity and overfishing. It supported a broad prohibition of fisheries subsidies with S&DT for developing countries. It said that policy space for developing countries should not be a blank cheque, but at the same time should ensure that developing countries can support the construction of fishing fleets. It said that the new agreement should deal with asymmetries between developed and developing countries in this sector. Mexico also supported a broad prohibition with S&DT.

With the Easter deadline approaching quickly, some observers have said that resolving the fisheries subsidies issue, one of the few areas to see progress in recent years, is crucial to legitimising the efficacy of the WTO.

"The WTO is actually being tested as to whether it can deal with some of these other global issues to the extent that trade measures are involved," Peter Allgeier, a former deputy US trade representative who is now an adviser to Oceana, told Bridges Trade BioRes. "Certainly fisheries subsidies are a classic trade measure and they are probably the most damaging thing to the oceans in terms of how the various fishing industries operate these days."

ICTSD reporting.

This article is published under
6 April 2011
An EU attempt to help Pakistan's economy recover from devastating floods last year by granting it tariff preferences for some textile exports has hit a roadblock, with India, Bangladesh, and Peru...
6 April 2011
This year's round of UN climate negotiations got off to a slow start this week in Bangkok, as renewed bickering on old divisions marred governments' attempt to build on the agreement reached last...