Negotiations on Fisheries Subsidies: Understanding Subsidies and Overfished Stocks

WTO: Paths Forward
Organised by
12 June 2018
Geneva, Switzerland

This knowledge-sharing seminar provided an opportunity for negotiators to engage in informal dialogue around the negative impacts of subsidies on overfished stocks and the issue of how the state of fish stocks can be assessed, including in data-poor environments.

The dialogue covered technical issues related to the management of overfished stocks, as well as key legal questions in the development of disciplines on fisheries subsidies. The discussion underscored the distinction between overfished stocks and the process of overfishing, and the tools governments could use to establish if a stock was overfished. These ranged from sophisticated data-intensive stock assessments through model-driven estimates of stock status and interpretations based on more informal data, such as the size of catch.

The presentations and debate also addressed the question of unassessed stocks, referencing the results of a recent model of these stocks developed at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which indicated that overall, unassessed stocks appeared to be less healthy than assessed stocks, and that smaller stocks were almost certainly over-exploited, but also that not all unassessed stocks were necessarily overfished.

Discussion of legal questions focused on the possible implications of a “negative effects” test being included as part of a discipline on subsidies to fishing of overfished stocks. This included the possible roles of national governments or regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) being charged with establishing if a subsidy had a negative effect on a fish stock, and the degree of deference a WTO panel might – by analogy to the approach taken in sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) cases – take to reviewing technical determinations including of the state of a fish stock.

Main takeaways

  • Modelling suggests that unassessed fish stocks appear to be declining, and that smaller stocks are particularly likely to be severely overfished. However, modelling also suggests that not all unassessed stocks are necessarily overfished at this point in time.
  • A negative effects test would significantly narrow the application of a rule on subsidies to overfished stocks. It could be built based on existing models in the WTO agreements.  Past jurisprudence of WTO panels in the SPS context, if applied in an analogous way to fisheries subsidies disputes, could result in panels reviewing the logic of policy decisions, but not the underlying science, of technical issues like assessments of stock status.

The event built on previous ICTSD dialogues and research on these topics, in particular ICTSD’s recent publication Fisheries Subsidies Rules at the WTO: A Compilation of Evidence and Analysis and the policy brief Building Comprehensive and Effective WTO Rules on Fisheries Subsidies.

The meeting is part of the first set of dialogues of the ICTSD initiative WTO: Paths Forward. Building on the outcomes of the 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, this initiative will provide a platform to exchange perspectives and in-depth analysis on possible options for WTO-based processes going forward and into the 12th Ministerial Conference.

Christophe BELLMANN is a Senior Resident Research Associate at ICTSD with more than 20 years of experience working on international trade negotiations and policy making from a sustainable development perspective. Mr. Bellmann joined ICTSD in 1998, first as Programme Officer for Outreach and Partnership, then as Director of Policy Dialogues and since 2002, as Programmes Director. Before joining our Organisation, Mr. Bellmann worked for the Swiss Coalition of Development Organisations (SCDO) where he was responsible for activities on multilateral trade and sustainable development issues. Mr. Bellmann has also worked as a Research Associate at the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in Santiago, Chile, on the relationship between trade and the environment.

Mr. Bellmann has edited and published a wide range of books, articles and opinion pieces in English, French and Spanish on trade and sustainable development. His work focuses on international trade negotiations, development policies and environmental governance in areas such as agriculture and food security, fisheries, tariffs and non-tariff barriers, rules, regional trade, services and intellectual property rights, He holds an MA in International Relations from the Graduate Institute for International Studies in Geneva. Mr. Bellmann is a citizen of Switzerland.



Alice Tipping is a Programme Manager and leads the ICTSD’s Environment and Natural Resources programme.

Prior to joining the ICTSD, she worked as a diplomat and legal adviser in the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. She has served in New Zealand’s Mission to the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, where she covered negotiations on trade remedies, including fisheries subsidies, trade and the environment and the WTO’s dispute settlement system.

She has also served in New Zealand’s Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, covering several UN specialised agencies and environmental issues.

Ms Tipping has also worked as a research and strategy analyst in foreign direct investment promotion.

She holds an MPhil in International Relations from Cambridge University. She also holds a Bachelor of Laws degree and a Bachelor of Commerce degree, with a major in Economics, from Victoria University of Wellington. Alice is citizen of the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

Brendan McGivern practices international trade law, particularly the law of the WTO. He also has an active practice in public international law, including the negotiation and implementation of environmental treaties. McGivern advises companies, industry associations and sovereign governments on the full range of WTO rules. He represents WTO Member states in dispute settlement proceedings before panels and the Appellate Body. He counsels sovereign governments on the negotiation of bilateral and regional free trade agreements. He has extensive experience in international energy trade law issues.

McGivern served as a member of the WTO arbitration panel in the US – 1916 Anti-Dumping Act case, which adjudicated a request by the European Communities for retaliatory trade sanctions against the United States. In February 2018, McGivern was appointed to the Roster of Panelists under Chapter 19 (anti-dumping and countervailing duty matters) of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Prior to joining White & Case, McGivern was the senior legal adviser and the head of the Dispute Settlement section at the Canadian Mission to the WTO in Geneva. He frequently presented arguments to WTO dispute settlement panels and the Appellate Body.

Dr. Nicolás L. Gutiérrez is a Fishery Resources Officer in the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) based in Rome, Italy. In this role, he supports the design and implementation of programs of assistance to member countries in their tuna and tuna-like resource assessments, fisheries research and management activities, including implementation of the ecosystem approach to fisheries. Nicolás also provides advice and develops capacity building programs on fisheries stock assessment and management, particularly in data-limited situations and to developing world fisheries.

Prior to taking up his post at FAO in 2015, he was the Head of Research at the London-based Marine Stewardship Council where he led the teams responsible for the policy development process, science communications and training, and research and credibility. Dr. Gutiérrez has focused his research on the interplay among ecological processes, fisheries management, and co-management governance and on the impacts of market-based approaches such as certification and eco-labelling in achieving sustainable fisheries. Nicolás holds a PhD in Fishery Sciences from the University of Washington and an MSc in biology from the University of Uruguay. He has worked in fisheries management at the national and international level for more than 15 years and has taught several courses on marine conservation and fisheries stock assessment. He has received the Fulbright Scholarship, the Organization of American States’ Initiative in Ecology Award, and a National Science Foundation fellowship (USA).

Room S3, World Trade Organization, Rue de Lausanne 154, 1202 Genève