Fisheries Subsidies in the Spotlight Ahead of UN Ocean Conference

4 May 2017

Preparations are underway for the high-level UN Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, co-hosted by the governments of Fiji and Sweden and set to coincide with World Oceans Day 2017 in June.

The 5-9 June event will be the first SDG-specific conference held by the UN since its adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. It is also known as the UN Ocean Conference. (See Bridges Weekly, 1 October 2015)

“When we talk about SDG 14, we are thinking about navigation in the sea, we think about catching fish in the sea for food, we are thinking about doing tourism, but that is not all. Health of the sea and sustainable use of marine resources have a direct impact in the implementation of the many SDGs,” said Wu Hongbo, UN Under-Secretary-General and head of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) during an initial preparatory meeting.

UN member states, intergovernmental organisations, and other entities will convene in New York for the week-long event to reaffirm their commitments to SDG 14 and its objectives: to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.”

Oceans absorb one-third of greenhouse gas emissions produced by humans and are vital to poverty eradication, food security and nutrition, and climate change mitigation. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), ocean-based economies assure the livelihoods of 10-12 percent of the world’s population.

Overall, the Ocean Conference aims to respond to declines in ocean health from marine pollution and ocean acidification and to develop solutions that offset the negative effects of overfishing, the overcapacity of fisheries, and the use of fisheries subsidies.

Call for Action: revised zero draft

Projected outcomes from the Ocean Conference include the adoption of the intergovernmental declaration titled “Our Oceans, Our Future: Call for Action” by consensus. Negotiations over drafts of the “Call for Action” are ongoing, with a revised version of the text having undergone its second round of consultations last week.

The latest draft, which is dated 7 April, stresses that measures to implement SDG 14 “should build upon… reinforce and not duplicate or undermine, existing legal instruments” in line with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, such as the Port State Measures Agreement to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (PSMA).

The PSMA was adopted by 29 countries and the European Union in 2016 and has now entered into force. (See Bridges Weekly, 25 May 2016)

In addition to the “Call for Action,” co-chairs will compile a report summarising the seven partnership dialogues scheduled and a list of voluntary commitments meant to facilitate the implementation of SDG 14. So far, 103 voluntary commitments from stakeholders, UN bodies, and governments have been received, which outline different projects to protect marine ecosystems in coastal zones like Grenada and Bali and efforts to increase ocean conservation philanthropy.

UN, WTO interlinkages

The Ocean Conference preparations have also included meetings on trade, and language on the subject is also featured in the “zero draft” that is under discussion.

In late March, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), FAO, and the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States (ACP) co-organised an Oceans Forum focused on the regulatory and policy implications of Goal 14’s trade-related targets.

These targets include an end to illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing, overfishing, and other destructive fishing practices (SDG 14.4) and the prohibition of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, with an emphasis on the elimination of those related to IUU fishing activities (SDG 14.6) by 2020. (See Bridges Weekly, 22 September 2016)

Some estimates place global fisheries subsidies at US$35 billion annually, with 60 percent of this amount allocated to capacity-enhancing subsidies. Experts say that this type of subsidy allows fleets to intensify and broaden the scope of their fishing in a way that depletes fish stocks and promotes other destructive practices.

Participants also discussed SDG 14.b and its call for increased access to markets and marine resources for small-scale artisanal fishers during the Oceans Forum. This especially important demographic accounts for 86 percent of fishermen employed worldwide. Of those employed in small-scale fisheries, half are women.

The UN efforts come at a time when World Trade Organization (WTO) members are actively looking at options for disciplining harmful fisheries subsidies and improving transparency on the subject, in the hopes of reaching an agreed outcome by year’s end.

Given this context, Luis Enrique Chávez Basagoitia, who chaired the Oceans Forum and is Peru’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, emphasised the need to identify all WTO instruments valuable to the achievement of Goal 14.

In his concluding report on the Oceans Forum on 20 April, the chairman spoke extensively about the health of the blue economy in relation to fisheries subsidies. 

“There is an undeniable nexus between the extraction of fisheries resources and conservation and trade. Thus, the opportunity cost of not acting to address harmful fishing subsidies is extremely high. Without action we will deplete the resource, create food insecurity, and destroy the same sources of employment we aim to preserve,” he said.

The results of the discussions will be conveyed to the UN and WTO processes in anticipation of both the Ocean Conference and the Eleventh WTO Ministerial Conference (MC11) to be held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from 11-14 December.

The Ocean Conference will be the last major UN gathering before MC11 on the trade-related aspects of fisheries, and especially international responses to fisheries subsidies.

While the WTO is a different forum from the UN, negotiators at the global trade body have broadly referred to the momentum from the SDG process – including the 2020 target on tackling fisheries subsidies – as a strong driver behind their current efforts.

Within this context, talks on possible disciplines on fisheries subsidies continue within the WTO’s negotiating group on rules, with an informal meeting held in Geneva on 2 May. A subsequent “cluster” of meetings is planned from 15-17 May, which sources say will look more closely at a new proposal tabled by New Zealand, Iceland, and Pakistan on the implementation of SDG 14.6.

Other topics for that cluster of WTO meetings include the scope of potential fisheries subsidies disciplines, along with accounting for the special needs of developing economies and any technical assistance or capacity building required. Future meetings will also be held in “clusters” to discuss topics such as transparency, implementation, dispute settlement, and related topics, though the dates for those have not yet been finalised.

ICTSD reporting. 

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