WTO Members Prepare to Shift Gears in Fisheries Negotiations

15 November 2018

WTO members negotiating a proposed agreement to tackle harmful fisheries subsidies held a second cluster of meetings last week as part of their September-December work programme, hearing reports about brainstorming sessions in “incubator groups” the week before and completing the streamlining of a document consolidating all existing proposals. 

Apart from the streamlining of the text and the consideration of incubator groups’ reports, last week’s cluster of meetings also included a “text-based discussion” focused on possible disciplines on subsidies that contribute to the fishing of stocks that are in an overfished condition. Efforts to translate various positions into draft provisions, however, remained difficult, sources said. 

“In terms of substance, there was not much movement at all. But we are still relatively early in the process, and nobody is going to make big moves at that stage,” one delegate told Bridges. 

Delegates also began reflecting on how to organise negotiating work on fisheries subsidies next year, with various members calling for a shift in gears into full-on negotiating mode as the end-2019 deadline for reaching an agreement approaches. 

At the organisation’s Eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last December, WTO members adopted a ministerial decision in which they agreed to continue negotiations on fisheries subsidies “with a view to adopting, by the Ministerial Conference in 2019, an agreement on comprehensive and effective disciplines.” 

They were unable to reach an agreement on specific disciplines at that time, despite an escalation in negotiating efforts in the months leading up to the ministerial to potentially achieve an interim deal. (See Bridges Daily Update, 14 December 2017

The next WTO ministerial conference will be held in Astana, Kazakhstan, in June 2020, although members are planning to uphold their 2019 target for wrapping up a fisheries subsidies accord by the end of 2019. 

Earlier this year, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued an assessment that found that global fisheries resources continue to suffer from severe overfishing, with more than 33 percent of marine fish stocks being fished at biologically unsustainable levels. As many in the environmental community and beyond have highlighted, this situation represents a serious threat to the health of ecosystems, the livelihoods of the populations depending on fisheries, and the realisation of broader sustainable development objectives. 

With strong evidence that subsidies to the fishing sector can contribute significantly to unsustainable levels of fishing, environmental advocates say that a meaningful WTO agreement to tackle harmful fisheries subsidies could provide a valuable opportunity for the global trade club to support efforts at curbing overfishing and other challenges facing the sector. 

Various WTO members have noted over the past few years that such an agreement would contribute to the realisation of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development agenda, as explicitly envisioned in one of the targets under Sustainable Development Goal 14, which relates to the conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas, and marine resources.

In SDG 14.6, UN member states committed to “prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing, and refrain from introducing new such subsidies.” 

They refer specifically to the WTO negotiating process in this context, and that target also “[recognises] that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the World Trade Organization fisheries subsidies negotiation.” 

From incubator groups to “real” negotiating mode?

After a series of meeting clusters before the summer break, the WTO’s fisheries subsidies talks entered a new mode in September, namely through the use of a format known as “incubator groups.” 

These small groups of 9-10 WTO members meet between regular sessions of the Rules Negotiating Group, which is the WTO body in charge of negotiations on fisheries subsidies, to address specific topics. The incubator groups aim to generate new ideas, which they can then report back to all delegations in plenary meetings. 

Last week, WTO members considered reports from incubator groups on questions related to the identification of stocks that are in an overfished condition; the role that outside expertise would play in the concrete application of possible WTO disciplines on fisheries subsidies; and the relationship between these rules and fisheries management processes in place at the national or regional levels, among others. 

Despite reports of some initial scepticism by some delegations towards the incubator groups, sources say that discussions in this new setting have generally been greeted as positive and constructive, allowing for members to exchange views at a more informal level and making it easier for new ideas to emerge. 

To date, the incubator group process has proceeded in parallel to talks on the current negotiating text. Regarding the text-based discussions, WTO members finished streamlining a document last week that consolidated all the proposals under consideration. At this stage, it is not yet clear how and when the results of the incubator group process will be incorporated into the text-based discussions. 

 “The incubator groups are generating a lot of good ideas, including some new ideas – although some are old ideas too. But for the moment, we have not actually seen the translation of these ideas into the text,” a developing country delegate told Bridges. 

As a result, various delegations, including the African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) Group, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the EU, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, Russia, the US, and Vanuatu, took the floor during the wrap-up session of last week’s cluster to call for a change in pace and approach. According to a Geneva trade official familiar with the meeting, these members referred to the importance of transitioning from brainstorming discussions in incubator groups to more substantial, text-based negotiations. 

It is not yet clear how exactly these would differ from the “text-based discussion” sessions that are already included in the September-December work programme. 

“We want to move to proper text-based negotiations, and many delegations have said it. We want to encourage new proposals to come on the table,” continued the same delegate. 

“It is a question of timing as well. We have around one year left now. We just do not have time to continue in a process based on ideas only,” another delegate said. 

The work conducted so far, including as part of the incubator groups’ process and the scrubbing of the consolidated text of all proposals, will facilitate this shift to a “real negotiating mode,” Mexico’s WTO Ambassador Roberto Zapata Barradas, the chair of the negotiations, told delegates last week, according to a Geneva trade official. 

Sources said that this could take a variety of forms, and it is not yet clear how the negotiating work will be structured in the new year, although one general approach could be to use smaller groups. 

“The process should be more member-driven, and definitely text-based. One possibility that has been mentioned by some delegations is to adopt an approach similar to the negotiations of the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA), with small groups and facilitators,” another delegate told Bridges. 

In the final push to wrap up the TFA talks, the chair of the negotiations had appointed facilitators, known as “Friends of the Chair,” to help lead negotiating efforts on particular sections of the text. 

“The exact way in which future work will be organised is still open for debate, but we could see something along those lines,” the same delegate added. 

Sources also told Bridges that discussions on how to organise the negotiating work for 2019 will continue during the last cluster of meetings for 2018, which will be held on 3-7 December. These talks will be preceded by meetings of the incubator groups. 

Global cooperation on marine resources

Fisheries subsidies talks at the WTO take place against a backdrop of increased efforts at boosting cooperation across various international forums to help protect oceans and marine resources. This includes negotiations at the UN level on safeguarding marine biodiversity, as well as major international summits devoted to SDG 14 more broadly.

Last September, UN negotiators concluded a first session of talks towards the establishment of a global treaty to protect marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). The first negotiating round set in motion a two-year process aimed at resolving long-standing gaps in international environmental governance. (See Bridges Weekly, 20 September 2018

Similarly to the fisheries subsidies negotiations at the WTO, the BBNJ process is by no means new, as a new UN pact in this area would be the culmination of a process spanning over 14 years. It has, however, also been given new impetus by the adoption of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda in 2015 and the process that led to it. 

Negotiators are expected to meet at the end of March 2019 for the second session of the international conference responsible for the BBNJ talks. 

The fifth Our Ocean Conference also took place on 29-30 October in Bali, Indonesia, under the theme “Our Ocean, Our legacy”. The high-level event, which was attended by country, business sector, and civil society representatives, generated a total of US$10.7 billion in pledges for various initiatives and projects aimed at protecting oceans and marine ecosystems. 

The conference generated 305 tangible and measurable commitments in the following six areas of action: maritime security; marine protected areas; sustainable fisheries; marine pollution; sustainable blue economy; and climate change. In particular, commitments regarding marine protected areas have expanded the global coverage of these areas by up to 14 million square kilometres. 

The event was praised by many observers as a significant success, yielding concrete environmental outcomes while serving as a testament to the powers of international cooperation. 

“Even the most powerful actor in any given time in history has needed to collaborate. […] Collaboration is the oxygen of our work,” said Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister, at the conference. 

The next Our Ocean conference will be hosted by Norway in 2019. 

ICTSD reporting.

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