WTO Members Prepare for Next Chapter in Fisheries Negotiations

20 July 2017

Negotiators have been examining an influx of new and updated proposals to establish WTO disciplines on harmful fisheries subsidies over the past week, as they prepare to enter the next stage of talks for a potential deal at the organisation’s ministerial conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, later this year.

At press time, the members and member groups that have put forward proposals within the “rules negotiating group” include the Least Developed Country (LDC) Group; the African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) Group; the European Union; Norway; New Zealand, Iceland, and Pakistan; Indonesia; and a group of Latin American countries.

While some of these proposals were tabled and discussed earlier in the year, such as the New Zealand, Iceland, and Pakistan proposal, others are revisions from earlier documents, or in the case of the ACP and LDC groups are textual proposals building off previous concept papers. The push to put all proposals on the table came with the WTO’s annual August break fast approaching, with negotiations to then resume in Geneva this autumn.

According to a Geneva trade official, the chair of the rules negotiations, Ambassador Wayne McCook of Jamaica, will now be preparing with the support of the WTO secretariat a document that summarises the different factual aspects of these proposals in a matrix format to facilitate this next stage of the talks.

Negotiations on fisheries subsidies at the Geneva-based organisation are held within the “rules negotiating group,” which also tackles subjects such as trade remedies. In related news, Geneva trade officials say that a proposal from China to discuss improvements in transparency and due process in trade remedy investigations remains a point of contention among the rules negotiating group, though members welcomed the pledge from Beijing last week that progress on this subject would not be tied to the talks on fish.
 

Updated proposals

The seven fish subsidies proposals currently under consideration address a series of issues, which viewed together exhibit some of the nuances and differences that have emerged in the recent discussions.

Many of them feature language such as how to define a subsidy in this context; what types of subsidies would be prohibited and how to define them; how to discipline subsidies to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing; disciplines and carve-outs related to subsidies to overfished stocks, overfishing, and overcapacity; special and differential treatment, including how to define terms such as artisanal and small-scale fishing; notifications; transitional arrangements; and monitoring and review.

The proposals from Indonesia, the EU, and the Latin American country group are all revisions from earlier submissions to the global trade body. The European Union’s updated proposal, dated 6 July, now includes text in brackets, and shows where text has been added or removed from the earlier iteration.

The EU adds early in the proposal that the share of overfished stocks already surpassed 31 percent four years ago, and later includes an additional prohibition to ban subsidies for “fishing outside the territorial sea that negatively affect targeted fish stocks that are in an overfished condition.”

Changes to the EU’s previous proposal also include the addition of language regarding a to-be-defined “transition period” for subsidies that boost fishing vessel capacity or ability to track down fish, among select other subsidies, so long as the vessel involved “does not target fish stocks that are in an overfished condition.”

Other changes relate to notifications, such as asking developing or least developed countries to indicate whether they have used the proposed flexibilities in the EU text. These flexibilities are outlined under Article 4 and involve, for instance, allowing these countries to provide subsidies for fishing vessels engaged in subsistence fishing (Article 4.1), or to give financial support for other uses that would otherwise be prohibited, so long as the fish stocks targeted using the subsidy are not overfished and have a management plan in place (Article 4.2).

They also include a provision, numbered 4.2bis in the proposal, which says that “developing countries ranking among the world’s [X] biggest in terms of marine capture production as determined by the FAO shall endeavour to refrain from making use of the flexibilities set out in 4.2.” The FAO refers to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

It also adds that parties “shall endeavour” to notify the status of fish stocks, conservation and management measures in place, and plans for capacity management. It further outlines information that would be required, such as the name, legal basis, and type of support and fishing activity involved for any subsidy programme.

Indonesia, for its part, has updated its earlier proposal from 5 June, with the new version from 12 July including clarifications on how it would address differences between small-scale and artisanal fishing within its section on special and differential treatment. It also addresses exceptions that would be granted to developing countries for granting subsidies to “underexploited resources in the member’s own Economic Exclusive Zone or rights held by the member in high seas fishing quotas or a regional fisheries management arrangement.” (See Bridges Weekly, 22 June 2017)

Separately, the Indonesian proposal continues to refer to the need for technical assistance to developing country members, which it says would be provided by developed countries “upon request” on terms that are “mutually agreed.”

The proposal also flags a particular clarification that it wanted members to be aware of in this new iteration. “Indonesia would like to highlight that prohibition on subsidy related to IUU fishing has been rearranged to clarify that subsidies contributing to IUU fishing must not be tolerated, given such activities have great detrimental effects on all aspects, namely economic and social.”

The proponents of the updated Latin American group proposal from 14 July are Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Their proposal notes that any new prohibitions would not have a bearing on territorial disputes, and would exempt time-bound subsidies used for reconstruction in cases of disaster relief, except for those involving IUU fishing. Certain conditions would also be attached.

It also prohibits subsidies involving IUU fishing, overfished stocks, and overcapacity, providing definitions for all concepts. For overfishing, the group outlines a transition period for developing and least developed countries to address information gaps relating to the state of their fish stocks, with the timeframe for this transition period to be determined. The group also includes an exception to these prohibitions, minus IUU fishing, that would allow subsidies for “small-scale artisanal fishers to access marine resources and markets,” so long as this takes place within national waters.

Other provisions tackle notifications, listing what is required; what information is best endeavour; and the timeframe for providing such information, with longer periods granted to developing and least developed countries. It also calls for implementing a system to help provide the WTO’s poorer countries with technical assistance and capacity building, and includes separately a provision to review annually the state-of-play in enacting these new disciplines.
 

New proposals

Among the new texts that have been circulated is a one-page proposal from Norway, tabled on 26 June. This text calls for a specific article prohibiting any subsidies for “vessels, owners, or operators engaged in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing,” and directing WTO members to cross-check against IUU vessel lists and assess whether a vessel has fished illegally in another country’s territory in recent years before allocating such financial support. The Scandinavian country said this article should be “inserted into a larger text.”

The LDC Group proposal was submitted by Cambodia and dated 17 July, while the ACP Group proposal was tabled by Guyana and dated 13 July. Both proposals also address which subsidies would be prohibited; outline transitional arrangements for developed, developing, and least developed members; and feature provisions on special and differential treatment.

The two proposals, while having similar language in some sections, differ in areas such as notifications. Differences include what information must be included in the notifications, and what exemptions would exist for those requirements. The LDC Group exempts least developed countries from notification requirements, while the ACP Group says that these requirements “shall not be burdensome on developing countries with capacity constraints, especially LDCs.”
 

Clock running down

The push for a fish subsidies deal, while not new in the WTO context, has taken on renewed energy in light of the political momentum generated by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Adopted by UN members in 2015, these goals include a dedicated SDG to ocean and marine resource conservation and sustainable use, known as SDG 14.

That goal involves a related target, 14.6, to “eliminate subsidies that contribute to [IUU] fishing” along with banning subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, by the year 2020, as well as according “appropriate and effective special and differential treatment” for the organisation’s poorer members, making a specific reference to the WTO talks on fisheries.

With the August break coming up shortly, trade negotiators have been pushing to lay the groundwork for when the talks on both fisheries and other WTO topics, such as agriculture, resume this autumn, aiming to get a better sense of what might be potential deliverables for Buenos Aires. (For more on the agriculture talks, see related story, this edition)

WTO members are due to meet next week informally at the level of heads of delegation, and then formally under the General Council from 26-27 July. The latter is the organisation’s highest decision-making body outside of the ministerial conference.

Negotiations are then expected to pick up in the autumn, with a “mini-ministerial” planned for Marrakech, Morocco, in early October that sources say could be valuable in setting the stage for the 10-13 December WTO ministerial in Argentina.
 

ICTSD reporting. This article first appeared in Bridges Weekly, 20 July 2017.

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