Group of WTO Members Announces Talks to Ban Harmful Fisheries Subsidies

22 September 2016

A group of 13 WTO members announced plans last week to begin preparations for negotiations to ban harmful fisheries subsidies, aiming to reach an international agreement under the Geneva-based organisation. According to a joint statement, these talks would aim to tackle subsidies that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity, along with those linked to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Participants include Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, New Zealand, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Singapore, Switzerland, Uruguay, and the United States. Along with addressing subsidies themselves, the group also aims to improve reporting and transparency on such state aid.

The participants also aim to strengthen the capacity of developing countries to implement these planned subsidies disciplines. Discussions are now underway on exactly how to conduct the talks as well as next steps.

“We believe this initiative will result in significant trade, economic, development, and environmental benefits, and help put us on track towards achieving target 14.6 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” the joint statement reads, referring to a universal goal of sustainably using and conserving the world’s oceans, adopted last year as part of a broader UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. (See Bridges Weekly, 1 October 2015)

Specifically SDG 14.6 calls for the prohibition of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and the elimination of those related to IUU fishing activities, by 2020. Some subsidies can augment fishing capacity and effort, thereby exacerbating pressure on stocks, while IUU fishing undermines marine management and conservation efforts.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that approximately 31.4 percent of commercial fish stocks are overfished. This includes familiar species such as the Atlantic cod, chub mackerel, and certain types of tuna. Meanwhile, some studies suggest that IUU fishing makes up between 13 and 31 percent of reported catches, climbing to as much as 50 percent in certain regions.

Fish are also among the world’s most traded food commodities, with developing countries claiming a growing share over the last few decades, providing an important source of foreign currency earnings. They also generate employment for 56.6 million people, and play a critical role in ensuring food security and nutrition.

The joint statement was issued on the eve of the third Our Ocean Conference, a major US-led gathering on international ocean conservation, held on 15-16 September in Washington. The event also saw the unveiling of­ over 136 new initiatives on marine conservation, the promotion of sustainable fisheries, and the reduction of marine pollution, to the tune of US$5.24 billion.

Among the wave of efforts, US President Barack Obama announced last Thursday the creation of the first US marine reserve in the Atlantic, as well as extending coverage of the Papahānaumokuākea marine national monument off the coast of Hawaii to create the world’s largest marine protected area. Other milestones included the establishment of Cambodia’s first marine protected area.

Finding a path forward

According to the joint statement, participants in this fisheries initiative will work with other like-minded WTO members to conclude an ambitious, high standard agreement, while simultaneously supporting ongoing efforts to make progress on a wider multilateral deal.

According to some sources, the move represents a bid to find ways forward in the face of blockages in multilateral talks on fisheries subsidies, particularly within the WTO “rules negotiating group” charged with tackling the subject. However, this new initiative would not preclude endorsing a multilateral solution if one can be found, sources said.

“There’s no net loss in discussing the issue in multiple avenues in order to move ahead,” one trade watcher told Bridges.

The initiative resembles other efforts to conclude trade agreements at the WTO among a select group of members, also known as a “plurilateral,” with examples to date covering information technology products, government procurement, and environmental goods, among others.

These, however, have largely dealt with market access whereas the fisheries subsidies initiative would relate to domestic rules.

Some commentators cautioned that the joint statement was missing some major fisheries producers and subsidisers such as China, the EU, Korea, Japan, and Russia, which would be critical for making a difference on the issue.

The group does, however, include three of the top ten global producers – the US, Peru, and Norway – as well as four of the top ten global exporters – Norway, the US, Chile, and Canada.

Several sources also said they expected additional participants to join further down the line.

Ongoing multilateral efforts

Multilateral talks on fisheries subsidies disciplines have been ongoing in the WTO for the last 15 years under the auspices of wider global trade talks launched in Doha, Qatar, in 2001. Trade ministers subsequently agreed at a 2005 Hong Kong ministerial to work towards a prohibition of certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, taking into account appropriate special and differential treatment (S&DT) for developing and least developed members as an integral element.

Despite initial advances in technical discussions, the talks eventually stalled. Last year saw a comparative uptick of activity around fisheries subsidies, however, in the run up to the WTO’s Tenth Ministerial Conference (MC10) held in December in Nairobi, Kenya. Several proposals for multilateral disciplines or related talks were released, with the African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) Group of developing countries joining the list of proponents.

An attempt to reach a fisheries subsidies outcome eventually floundered at the ministerial, although a group of 28 WTO members did release a ministerial statement pledging to reinvigorate the organisation’s work in order to achieve ambitious and effective disciplines on fisheries subsidies.

On the broader agenda, WTO members ultimately agreed to disagree on the merits of the Doha negotiating structure, while simultaneously issuing a strong commitment to continue to address its substantive issues. (See Bridges Weekly, 19 December 2015)

Trade negotiators in Geneva, Switzerland, have since been reflecting on the best way forward for multilateral trade talks and what key items to address for the WTO’s next conference, which is due to be held in late 2017. Multiple sources have said that fisheries subsidies disciplines are on the docket as a potential outcome, with the SDG 14.6 deadline looming large.

Some sources indicated that multilateral discussions are being held on some key questions around fisheries subsidies rules – for example, looking at what type of support countries currently provide, along with what changes would need to take place.

Proposals for multilateral disciplines are also expected within the next month, including a potential contribution from the ACP Group and another from Peru, although sources said they did not yet know what the exact nature of these submissions would be. Many supporters of a fisheries outcome expressed hope that WTO members would move to textual negotiations well ahead of the next ministerial conference (MC11).

These talks will likely need to address previous calls to resolve other issues also assigned to the rules negotiating group, such as clarifications to rules on anti-dumping duties, although the status of WTO talks in general is unclear following the Nairobi outcome.

TPP harvest?

Several trade watchers last week suggested that the group’s joint statement on fisheries subsidies could help to translate ground-breaking fisheries subsidies rules found in the regional Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal between 12 Pacific Rim countries into a wider setting and potentially go beyond these. 

The TPP negotiations, concluded in October 2015, included the first fisheries subsidies disciplines found in any trade agreement. The deal would prohibit subsidies for fishing that negatively affect overfished stocks as well as those provided to any vessel engaged in IUU fishing activity. TPP participants would also be required to notify fisheries subsidies more generally.


While the TPP has since been signed, it is now facing a tough battle for ratification in the US Congress as well as in the legislatures of other participating nations. (See Bridges Weekly, 15 September 2016)

One source suggested that if TPP fails to secure the necessary support, efforts such as those envisaged in last week’s joint fisheries subsidies statement could be a way of harvesting some of its gains.   

TPP signatories include Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, the United States, Vietnam, Singapore, and New Zealand. These represent approximately 36 percent of the global marine catch and include four of the top ten global producers.

ICTSD reporting.

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