WTO Fisheries Negotiators Resume Text-based Discussions, Get Work Programme Into Gear

24 May 2018

Negotiators aiming to clinch a WTO deal on disciplining harmful fisheries subsidies concluded several days of meetings last week with an updated set of working documents, with subsequent meetings already set for June and July. 

The 14-17 May meetings marked the second time that the “rules negotiating group,” the body under which fisheries subsidies are dealt with at the WTO, had met this year. The group had previously convened in April to endorse a work programme that would cover the months of May, June, and July. 

WTO members are aiming to adopt a deal on fisheries subsidies in time for the organisation’s next ministerial conference, set for late 2019. Members had previously attempted to adopt a deal in time for the December 2017 ministerial conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with the hopes of at least agreeing on language involving subsidies to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Despite intensive negotiating work ahead of the ministerial, those efforts ultimately stumbled amid the wider political dynamics at the conference.

Members ultimately adopted a brief, two-paragraph decision in Buenos Aires setting the target of reaching a deal by 2019, with discussions in the interim to build on the work done so far. A formal date and location for that conference have not yet been confirmed. (See Bridges Daily Update, 14 December 2017)

Under Sustainable Development Goal target 14.6, WTO members have been tasked with prohibiting those fisheries subsidies that support overcapacity and overfishing, along with making sure that state aid that goes towards IUU fishing is fully eradicated. The target date for such a deal is 2020.

Scope of fish deal

The meetings last week focused specifically on the subject of subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, along with streamlining language from members’ existing proposals on the scope of a fisheries subsidies agreement. That language on scope has now been included in an additional chapter, with the headline “Article 2,” within an extensive set of “working documents” from last year.

Those same working documents currently include streamlined sections on IUU fishing, overfished stocks, overcapacity, capacity-enhancing subsidies, notifications and transparency, and special and differential treatment. Those were developed in late 2017, in preparation for the Buenos Aires ministerial conference, with the hopes of facilitating those discussions.

The new section on scope is split into 10 heavily bracketed subsections. The working documents as a whole are described by the negotiating group chair as being “entirely without prejudice to the position of any delegation,” with the expectation that the documents will change over time as negotiations get further underway.

Under the section on scope, that proposed article puts forward options for how a fisheries subsidies deal would relate to the existing WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (SCM Agreement). Other subsections cover aspects such as how to attribute a subsidy to a particular WTO member, along with what the proposed agreement will not cover. Among the areas being considered for exclusion from the deal’s scope are subsidies for aquaculture, fuel subsidies and de-taxation schemes, inland fisheries subsidies, recreational fisheries subsidies, state aid for disaster relief, subsidies for crew safety, reducing the environmental impact of fishing and improving monitoring and control of fisheries, and subsidies “directly resulting” from other deals among members that involve granting access to exclusive economic zones.

Whether a fisheries subsidies deal would have implications for disputed waters, questions of territoriality or a member’s maritime jurisdiction, is addressed in another subsection. Other potential issues to address under the subject of scope include language that would make sure that certain technical documents, such as IUU vessel lists or reports issued by regional fisheries management organisations, apply only for supporting the WTO deal’s application, and are not put to other uses, such as assessing disagreements over maritime jurisdiction. One potential option also seeks to ensure that the deal’s disciplines do not prevent support for small-scale and artisanal fishing, except in very specific cases related to IUU fishing.

Geneva trade officials say that members still have differing views on these substantive issues, such as on whether to cover significant operating costs like fuel in the section on “scope.” Sources say, however, that negotiators did not indicate any new flexibility on these issues or other past areas of divergence, such as how to craft language around any potential legal implications for territorial disputes among members.

Coming up

The next “cluster” of fisheries negotiations is set for 11-14 June, and is due to address subsidies related to overfished stocks. Geneva trade officials say that another objective of that meeting is to continue the streamlining exercise, with a focus on the “definition” section of the agreement, building again from the language featured in members’ proposals from last year.

The updated “working documents” issued after last week’s negotiations do not yet feature a section on definitions. The subsequent meetings “cluster,” set for late July, is meant to examine the issue of IUU subsidies. The negotiations are then expected to resume in September, following the WTO’s hiatus in August.

ICTSD reporting.

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