WTO Negotiators Debate Revisions to Integrated Fisheries Text

9 November 2017

Trade negotiators debated a series of additions to a draft, integrated text of proposals on disciplining harmful fisheries subsidies last week, during a cluster of meetings at the WTO’s Geneva headquarters.

The meetings, held from 31 October to 3 November, followed on previous meetings in October that involved an overview and initial discussion on a common text that brought together the seven proposals that had previously been tabled this year. (See Bridges Weekly, 19 October 2017)

WTO members have been working towards clinching a fisheries subsidy deal in time for their ministerial conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is due to kick off in just one month.

Given the limited time remaining, and the various outstanding issues involved, delegations have been weighing how much they should aim to address by the Buenos Aires gathering, along with which areas should serve as part of a future agenda of WTO work. Negotiations around fisheries subsidies are due to resume next week.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing

The WTO fisheries talks have focused on crafting a ban on subsidies towards illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing; subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing; and subsidies that contribute to overfished stocks.

The past week of negotiations included suggestions from various members over how to craft the IUU ban within a broader deal, such as how to determine that IUU activities are taking place, sources say. This included, for example, how to ensure due process when using lists to make these determinations, along with who should be defined as the recipient of a subsidy under an IUU ban.

Notably, China put forward a three-page text specifically on an IUU fish subsidy ban. China’s proposed text states that “IUU fishing activities shall be determined by the flag member in accordance with its domestic laws and regulations, including through the form of listing.”

It further states that “when the flag member and the subsidising member are not the same, the fishing vessel concerned shall be notified to the subsidising member, and verified by the subsidising member through due procedure, and in accordance with relevant international laws, agreements, and rules of the RFMO.”

Regional fisheries management organisations, or RFMOs, are international coalitions of countries that work together in governing a particular fish species or those found in a set geographical region. Their roles vary depending on the RFMO, but can include collecting data, setting catch limits, and identifying non-compliance with RFMO decisions – and therefore setting up lists of IUU vessels. 

Their role in a future fisheries subsidies deal – such as in the data they provide on the state of fish stocks, or how to use their IUU lists – has also been hotly debated among members. There are 17 existing RFMOs, with varying and sometimes overlapping memberships, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The move to rely primarily on flag states to determine whether IUU fishing is taking place reportedly drew pushback from various WTO members, including the US, EU, Australia, Japan, and the least developed country (LDC) group, according to a Geneva trade official familiar with the meeting.

Concerns raised included whether giving a flag state such a large role in determining if these types of activities are occurring would weaken an IUU subsidy ban.  A separate caveat in the proposal, that “any alleged IUU fishing activity involving disputes concerning territoriality, sovereignty, or maritime jurisdiction shall be exclude[d]” from the application of a fish subsidy deal, also drew concerns.

The various exceptions related to territoriality also include a proposed provision to terminate any WTO legal disputes where members claim that it could affect territory or maritime jurisdictions, or sovereignty. Various members have proposed different language formulations for treating this issue, but not all proposals go so far as to create a carve-out for territoriality in a subsidy ban.

According to a 2016 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), illegal fishing may add up to 15 percent of fish captured every year. Tackling subsidies that could contribute to IUU fishing is one of several approaches being tried to tackle this problem, with others including steps outside the WTO to improve seafood traceability and limit market access to fish caught illicitly.

US calls for expanding scope, issues transparency proposal

Another development in last week’s talks was additional clarity from the United States on its negotiating position. The US called for expanding the deal’s scope to cover inland fisheries, rather than limiting it to fish caught in marine waters – an approach that differs from those proposed to date.

The US has also put forward a draft ministerial decision in separate WTO discussions that would have implications for transparency efforts in the area of fisheries subsidies. Under the draft decision, which also focuses on subsidies involving agriculture and technical barriers to trade, among others, Washington has called for members to improve their notifications, both in quality and frequency of submission, along with outlining detailed administrative penalties should members miss their notification deadlines. (See agriculture story in this edition)

In the area of fisheries, the proposal also asks that members submit a series of details on their fish subsidy programmes, and that ministers agree at MC11 “as an interim step” to “re-commit to complying” with existing WTO subsidy rules on notifications and endorse new categories of details to include in their submissions.

WTO members are expected to discuss the transparency proposal during the Friday 10 November meeting of the Goods Council, which is where the US has tabled it for discussion.

Preparing for post-MC11 work

In recent weeks, there has been a growing debate among WTO members over how much an MC11 outcome should aim to tackle, and how much should be left outstanding for some type of work programme following the ministerial.

That debate continued during last week’s meetings, according to a Geneva trade official, with some members stressing that IUU fishing should be prioritised in crafting a Buenos Aires deal. Some also raised the importance of transparency commitments, such as those involving subsidy notifications, among the areas that should be kept in a final accord.

Members also debated whether a ban on subsidies contributing to overfishing should be featured in an MC11 outcome document, or whether it should instead be treated after the ministerial to allow more time for building consensus. Members reportedly remain at odds over different aspects of determining whether stocks are overfished, and whether a subsidy would need to have a negative effect on an overfished stock to be prohibited, along with the geographic scope of this prohibition.

Other members have pushed against endorsing a deal that only covers some elements now and others later, urging instead for ministers in Buenos Aires to endorse a significant package that goes beyond just IUU fishing.

ICTSD reporting.  

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