Fisheries subsidies at the Eleventh WTO Ministerial Conference – deal or no deal?

12 December 2017

Discussions on ending subsidized fisheries took place at the World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference in Buenos Aires.

Potential solutions to the controversial topic of subsidized fisheries were explored on 11 December by attendees of a special event at the WTO’s Eleventh Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The event was an opportunity to build political consensus behind the issue and gain a deeper understanding of some trade-related aspects of Sustainable Development Goal 14 concerning life under the sea.

Matters covered included regulatory issues, prohibition of certain fish subsidies, market access and fish management systems.

The event showed that, although some WTO members were still unsure about the final agreement, due to be announced at the end of the conference, others declared that a solution was urgently needed.

Fish trade  

“Should there be no fisheries agreement at MC11, we must find other platforms within the United Nations to continue the discussions ensure a solution is found by 2020,” UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi said.

Depending on final negotiations, some UNCTAD member States have proposed the implementation of a WTO draft decision on a “standstill commitment”, which would ensure that the situation of global fisheries subsidies does not further deteriorate.

“The standstill commitment takes us backwards by a few years, but we have made tremendous progress and have a goal to achieve by 2030,” Dr. Kituyi said.

“Urgent and diligent follow-up is necessary.”

WTO members have been discussing fisheries subsidies since 2001 as part of the Doha Development Round. In 2015 the issue took on new sense with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and target 14.6, which states:

QuoteBy 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiation.Quote

Highlights of the event included comments on the significance of fish and fish products to international trade, food security, nutrition, poverty reduction and development.

Fish and seafood products are the most traded food commodity globally and remain an important employment generator in developing countries.

The regulatory framework and relevant international instruments were also covered through key international instruments that underlie and contribute to a functional fisheries management system and the development of potential disciplines on fish subsidies.

The Assistant Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Julio Berdegué, said there is a significant set of FAO treaties and soft law that seeks to address, overfishing, overcapacity, and illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing activities that provide guidance of many aspects of responsible and sustainable fisheries.

Minister Mori of PNG reflected on issues faced in Papua New Guinea,"Addressing IUU as a market access conditions, the cost of compliance with very stringent SPS and TBT market requirements remains a major challenge for fish exports by PNG. We had to work very hard to get our systems and procedures up to meet traceability requirements. We believe that developed country members should base their SPS and TBT measures on international standards. However, if they are required to use a standard higher than international standards then they should provide adequate technical assistance and capacity building so that the developing country is able to meet them."

Also taken into consideration were the non-tariff measures that face the fish sector in accessing international markets – which may include harmful fishing subsidies – and how they affect market access, particularly from developing countries.

A takeaway from the event was that sustainable fisheries, especially in developing countries, depend on eliminating unjustifiable and unsustainable subsidies, which distort market prices, contribute to overfishing, overcapacity and generate unfair competition between industrial fleets and small scale, artisanal fishermen.

The Deputy Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Josephine Okijamo, said "small economies comprise the majority of our membership. They face formidable capacity constraints. These capacity constraints in reality mean that our members are far from the largest subsidizers. They also struggle to capture greater value within the fisheries sector".

This was made more clear when target 14.6, which is meant to be achieved by 2020, was discussed. Its failure could have a domino effect on other SDGs.

Speakers at the event said special and differential treatment must be an integral part of the negotiating outcome under Target 14.6 and WTO mandates.

However, such outcomes must not only look at levels of development but levels of fishing capacity as well. Such capacities are found to be uneven among developed and developing countries, and among developing countries.

For example, 15 of the 25 major wild marine producers are developing countries, with one country representing about one-third of the total production.

Monica Maldonado from the Association of Tuna caning industries of Ecuador (CEIPA) said that sustainability is not a trade barrier but an opportunity for competitiveness, stock conservation and social inclusion.

UNCTAD, UN Environment and FAO have built up momentum and provided guidance in the form of a joint statement at the UN Ocean Conference in June 2107, which deepened their partnership by offering a voluntary commitment to expand trade-related aspects of Sustainable Development Goal 14 between now and 2020.

Ultimately, ministers at the event agreed that as some negotiating principles continue to struggle, others would focus their political will and complement efforts on the prohibition of fish subsidies to IUU fishing, improved transparency, studying the impact of subsidies on overfishing, unfair competition and access to stocks by small scale fishermen.