WTO Members Examine Options for Tackling Harmful Fisheries Subsidies

24 May 2017

WTO members pressed on last week with negotiations on potential disciplines for fisheries subsidies, holding four days of intensive discussions at the organisation’s Geneva headquarters.

This cluster of meetings, held from 15-18 May, aimed to address some of the substantive questions surrounding global disciplines for fisheries subsidies as part of an effort by the WTO’s Negotiating Group on Rules (NGR) to reach an outcome on the topic at the upcoming Eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11) in Buenos Aires. (See Bridges Weekly, 4 May 2017)

Negotiators have met on other occasions throughout the year to discuss options for an outcome at MC11, which will be held from 11-14 December in the Argentine capital city.

To date, texts have been tabled by the EU; New Zealand, with Iceland and Pakistan; the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States (ACP); the Least Developed Countries (LDCs); and a group of Latin American members. Sources suggest that updated versions, along with a proposal from Indonesia, may be in the pipeline for upcoming talks.

Sources familiar with the talks noted that these were of high intensity and saw substantial activity, including engagement from major players, though significant work remains for negotiators between now and the WTO’s annual August hiatus.

Sustainable Development Goals

At last week’s session, several WTO members reportedly pointed to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 and to target of SDG 14.6 in particular, which some sources noted has been a strong political driver behind moving the fisheries negotiations forward.

This SDG target sets a deadline of 2020 to “prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and refrain from introducing new such subsidies.” (See Bridges Weekly, 22 September 2016)

This SDG was one of 17 goals, with related targets, that were adopted by governments at a UN summit in September 2015. This was part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which tackles a host of economic, environmental, and social issues. (See Bridges Weekly, 1 October 2015)

Experts estimate that between US$10 billion and US$23.5 billion in economic benefits are lost due to IUU fishing activities each year, and determine that developing countries experience a higher intensity of and are the most debilitated by the negative economic and environmental effects of destructive fishing practices.

Furthermore, WTO members have reportedly highlighted SDG 14.6’s recognition of comprehensive special and differential treatment (S&DT) as a key component to the greater fisheries subsidies debate at the global trade body.

S&DT can allow developing countries and LDCs to enjoy more flexible time periods for meeting WTO rules and provide them additional help as they develop the capacity to do so.

Maritime jurisdictions, subsidy prohibitions

Along with discussing in further depth a communication circulated by Iceland, New Zealand, and Pakistan in late April, which looks at a possible ministerial outcome implementing SDG 14.6, members also examined topics such as what might fall under the new disciplines. 

Sources say that negotiators looked at the scope of potential disciplines, including the treatment of fishing within and beyond national maritime jurisdictions, and the flexibility of potential subsidy prohibitions given the needs of the WTO’s poorest members.

With respect to the scope of the agreement, members discussed obligations to implement disciplines for fisheries subsidies within jurisdictional waters, along with the relationship between international and national rules.

Some smaller developing country members reportedly said that disciplines should focus on subsidies that support large-scale, industrial fishing outside exclusive economic zones (EEZ), with some suggesting that smaller fishing activities do not have the same negative ramifications and others emphasising national governments’ role in governing activities in their own waters.

Others argued that the vast majority of global fishing takes place within national waters, with some developed country members among those noting that the relevant SDG does not make a distinction between national and international waters.

Aside from territorial contingencies, some members proposed other options, such as tailoring these disciplines to reflect the effect of a subsidy on fish stocks, although others said that prohibitions reflecting these ramifications could be difficult to put into practice.

Addressing special and differential treatment

The issue of S&DT has long been a key area in the fisheries subsidies negotiations. During last week’s meeting, several members reportedly expressed the view that S&DT should be designed to be supportive of developing economies’ ability to take on the subsidy reforms under discussion for Buenos Aires.

Members reportedly debated, for example, whether a future fisheries subsidies deal should be contingent on developing countries receiving the necessary technical assistance and capacity-building. Other ideas raised included giving these countries additional time to put new commitments in place, and whether developing countries would have the option to boost non-harmful subsidies at some stage, in light of the need to grow their relatively underdeveloped fishing activities.

Coming up

This round of talks comes just weeks ahead of the 5-9 June high-level UN Ocean Conference in New York City, which will feature opportunities for participants to discuss the implications of Goal 14.6 on the health of the blue economy and incorporate such considerations into its “Call for Action.” (See Bridges Weekly, 4 May 2017)

Back in Geneva, further intensive WTO work is planned, with issues like transparency, a standstill commitment, implementation, dispute settlement, institutional arrangements, and definitions planned for the next cluster of rules negotiating group meetings in mid-June.

ICTSD reporting.

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