WTO Fisheries Negotiators Update Draft Texts on IUU, Overfishing

23 November 2017

WTO negotiators concluded another cluster of talks on fisheries subsidy disciplines last week, with one more round to go before heading to the organisation’s ministerial conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The 13-17 November meet at the WTO’s Geneva headquarters produced a set of “working documents” dealing with two of the areas being considered for a subsidy ban – specifically, subsidies to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and subsidies for fishing of overfished stocks.

“These working documents are the result of a collective effort by delegations, and represent an effort to develop working texts that could present with some degree of clarity the numerous issues, approaches, and views before the group in these areas,” said an explanation from Wayne McCook, the Jamaican ambassador who chairs the rules negotiating group, where these talks are taking place.

The five-page text itself is riddled with brackets, reflecting the various different approaches among members on how to deal with these two areas. However, it is a cleaner version than the earlier sections on these topics within the larger vertical text released last month. (See Bridges Weekly, 19 October 2017)

The IUU section is structured around the overall subsidy prohibition itself, along with how to determine that IUU fishing is taking place. It lists options for who should weigh in on deeming that IUU fishing has occurred, such as by using the “IUU list” (or determination) of a member regarding vessels flying its flag, of coastal states with respect to vessels flying the flag of another country in waters under their jurisdiction, of a subsidising member, or of regional fisheries management organisations (RFMO), subject to certain conditions.

Within these alternatives, much of the text remains in brackets for negotiators to work on further.

The second section of the working documents involves subsides related to “fish stocks that are in an overfished condition.” The brackets within the text demonstrate some of the differing views on how to assess whether a fish stock is overfished.

For example, one option refers to having a regional fisheries management organisation or the member with jurisdiction over where the fishing is occurring deem that a stock is overfished, while three other alternatives go into further detail, referring to how low the level of a fish stock needs to be, and what reference points and corroborating scientific evidence is needed. Yet another alternative is, by comparison, wider, stating that a stock should be considered to be overfished if “it has not been assessed or has been assessed to be in an overfished condition.”

Prospects unclear

During last week’s meeting, some positions reportedly shifted, according to a Geneva trade official. For example, the US is no longer pushing to include inland fisheries within the deal’s scope, having tabled that proposal last month, while new proposals were put forward by India on both fuel subsidies and IUU fishing.

Fuel subsidies have long been criticised as a key driver behind fishing activities that would otherwise not be able to generate sufficient revenue. India has proposed omitting this type of support from a subsidy ban, citing the need for developing countries to maintain access to fuel subsidies or instead receive special and differential treatment. While some other proposals on the table have sought smaller exceptions for fuel from a subsidy ban, India’s proposal is the most widespread exception put forward so far.

On IUU, India proposed text specific to unreported and unregulated fishing – namely, a carve-out for subsidies to that fishing in the case of developing countries, should that fishing be taking place in the subsidising member’s exclusive economic zone. Both proposals drew criticism from some members, though the fuel subsidies proposal did receive the support of Venezuela and Ecuador.

Other proposed language was also issued on certain aspects of the wider fisheries text, such as on addressing fishing in disputed waters or the introduction of new subsidies – both issues that have already been raised in earlier meetings.

Another round is planned in Geneva later this month, with the goal of cleaning up other sections of the draft integrated text further. The chair, in his communication regarding the working documents, called for putting together “similar working texts and otherwise advancing its work on additional prohibitions such as overcapacity and capacity-enhancing subsidies; special and differential treatment; transparency and notifications; standstill; preamble; scope; transitional provisions; and institutional arrangements.”

Overall, sources say, the shape of a final outcome on fisheries for Buenos Aires, and of a possible ongoing work programme on the issue, remains uncertain, given the substantial amount of work remaining and persistent differences in views across the various areas of the fish subsidy negotiations. Only a couple weeks remain before ministers are due to arrive in the Argentine capital.

ICTSD reporting.

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