Fish Subsidies Talks Resume, With Focus On Role Of FAO

20 December 2006

Months after the Doha Round negotiations were suspended in July, WTO Members on 12 December restarted informal discussions on how to discipline fisheries subsidies. The largely technical debate focused on the possible role of external input, notably from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in developing and implementing new rules.

In this context, Members picked up several issues that they had raised before, in particular proposals suggested that FAO data and guidelines could play a role in ensuring that subsidised fishing permitted to developing countries under special and differential treatment (S&D) remains within sustainable limits.

Fisheries management and the FAO Code of Conduct

Some Members have suggested allowing developing countries to provide certain subsidies, including those that enhance the capacity of fishing fleets, on the condition that a fisheries management scheme has been put in place. This has raised the question of how to ensure that such schemes are effective.

Brazil, for instance, in earlier proposals had suggested using membership in regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) as a condition, but dropped the idea in response to widespread scepticism (see BRIDGES Trade BioRes, 3 April 2006). Argentina in June proposed that countries wishing to provide subsidies under S&D should be required to implement national management systems "in keeping with" the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (see BRIDGES Trade BioRes, 30 June 2006).

At the recent meeting, some Members worried that a direct cross-reference to the Code could effectively turn a voluntary instrument into a mandatory requirement. Moreover, should a dispute arise, it could be left to the WTO to rule on compliance with the Code, which would exceed the competence and mandate of the trade body.

Argentina clarified that the Code should simply be seen as a standard -- similar to those already referred to in the agreements on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) and on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) -- which Members were free, but not obliged to follow.

Others pointed out that only some of the Code's provisions actually dealt with management-related issues. Thus, rather than referring to the Code, they suggested identifying the relevant elements and integrating them directly into the WTO disciplines.

Assessing stock levels

Another key issue in the discussion related to the availability and reliability of data on stock levels necessary to prove that stocks are high enough to allow developing countries to expand their capacity under the S&D provisions.

Brazil, for instance, had proposed allowing the provision of capacity-enhancing subsidies only for those fisheries that are not 'patently at risk', i.e. that are not judged 'overexploited', 'depleted' or 'recovering' by the FAO. Argentina had suggested that such subsidies should only be permitted for the fishing of 'surplus species', that is, those for which the catch capacities of the fishing fleet were below the maximum allowable catch.

The EU in particular noted that international data was too unreliable to make such judgements. Moreover, since the FAO draws extensively on data supplied by individual countries, some Members feared that strong reliance on the FAO could perversely create a disincentive for Members to submit their data. Relying entirely on national data, on the other, would effectively mean that Members would police themselves.

As a compromise, the possibility of using both international and national data was raised. For instance, capacity-enhancing subsidies would not be allowed for any fishery deemed depleted and overexploited by the FAO. For the remaining fisheries -- only a few given that three quarters of global fish stocks are already at risk -- countries would calculate their surplus themselves, which in the case of a dispute could be cross-checked with international data.

With regard to Argentina's proposal to determine surplus "in accordance with" the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Members wondered about the implications of referring to other treaties, which would require potential dispute panels to examine compliance with these agreements.

De minimis proposal again under attack

While most of the discussion at the meeting was of a technical nature, the majority of Members came out strongly against a 'de minimis' proposal out forward by Japan, Korea and Taiwan. These countries had suggested allowing S&D only to those developing countries that account for less than a minimum percentage of the world market share of fish, or which have catches that fall below a certain weight threshold. Most Members felt that such an approach was too static and did not adequately respond to the environmental and developmental objectives of the negotiations.

No additional informal or regular meetings of the Rules Group have so far been scheduled.

ICTSD reporting.  

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