WTO Members Press on With Fisheries Talks, Weigh New Approaches to Overfished Stocks

21 June 2018

WTO members reconvened last week to deliberate over new options to curb subsidies that encourage fishing of overfished stocks. The members also updated a set of “working documents” that aim to lay the groundwork for the next stage of negotiations, adding a section on definitions that builds off language submitted in earlier proposals. 

The discussions which took place on 11-14June were the second in a series of sessions scheduled under a work programme designed by the “rules negotiating group,” the WTO body responsible for establishing rules for fisheries subsidies. The current work programme is focused on information exchange, as well as crafting a full set of working documents that can later serve as a negotiating text, thus facilitating future efforts at developing and adopting new fisheries subsidy disciplines. 

The first session under this work programme, held from 14-17 May, focused on information exchange about subsidies, overcapacity, and overfishing, as well as streamlining proposals on the scope of the agreement on fisheries subsidies and how it relates to the larger agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (SCM Agreement). (See Bridges Weekly, 24 May 2018

WTO members are working towards an agreement that would achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 14.6 by eliminating subsidies that lead to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and disciplining those that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity. That SDG target has the year 2020 set as its deadline. 

WTO members had previously hoped to clinch a deal in time for the Eleventh WTO Ministerial Conference held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in December 2017, but ultimately agreed instead to allow two more years for negotiations. WTO members are now looking to agree and adopt a deal by the Twelfth Ministerial Conference, which will be held in late 2019. 

Subsidies to overexploited stocks

Last week’s meetings focused on subsidies that contribute to fishing of overexploited fish stocks, an issue that is viewed as especially pernicious given that it affects stocks that are already facing potentially serious levels of depletion, and some subsidies could hamper efforts to help these stocks regenerate. 

The negotiators discussed options for disciplining subsidies in these situations, including using illustrative lists of positive and negative subsidies, developing a blanket elimination of all subsidies to assessed overfished stocks, or only prohibiting those subsidies that have “negative effects” on overexploited stocks.

The term positive subsidies, in this context, refers to state aid aimed at promoting activities that would have a helpful effect on the condition of those fish stocks, or aimed at other resource management or sustainability objectives. 

Geneva trade officials say there was interest in a “negative effects” approach but members differed in how they defined the term. For example, they considered whether this would involve subsidies that definitively have the effect of reducing the stock or also those that prevent recovery of the stock. Some members worried that such an approach could undermine established rules against harmful subsidies, if not designed correctly or clearly. Others questioned whether having the WTO conduct impact assessments that have traditionally been the responsibility of fishery management bodies could lead to unexpected challenges.

Members also discussed which authority would be responsible for assessing stock condition, how would unassessed stocks be treated, whether the disciplines would apply to waters in a member’s national jurisdiction, and how positive subsidies would be protected without weakening the provisions tackling negative ones. Sources indicate that discussions on these topics reflected ongoing concerns, but also that some new ideas were put forward. 

Definitions chapter

Additionally, the group built on the latest “working documents” issued after the meetings in May with a chapter on definitions, “Article 1,” with the aim of facilitating future negotiations on fisheries subsidies. 

That section, which is heavily bracketed, puts forward possible draft definitions for terms such as vessels used for fishing or fishing-related activities; activities that would fall under the categories of fishing or fishing-related; operators; IUU fishing; overfished stocks; subsistence fishing; artisanal fisheries; small-scale fisheries; industrial fisheries; large-scale industrial fishing; inland fisheries; aquaculture; and exclusive economic zones (EEZs). 

Negotiators will still need to agree on which language they should use from this text for the final set of definitions, which will be key in interpreting the final disciplines. 

Trade officials say that the chair of the group, Mexican Ambassador to the WTO Roberto Zapata Barradas, as well as several members, expressed appreciation for the “high level” of positive engagement and the advances seen on streamlining the text. 

Moving forward

The negotiating group will meet for their last summer session on 23-25 July, with a focus on addressing subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing, along with streamlining the working documents further. 

Members plan to resume text-based negotiations in September after the WTO’s August hiatus. The goal would be to move eventually from streamlining these working documents, which still lay all options on the table, towards negotiations on a draft text for a final agreement. 

Zapata is due to hold consultations with the membership on crafting a work programme for those subsequent months. 

ICTSD reporting.

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