December 17, 2017

WTO Puts Off Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies

News Source: SDG Knowledge Hub

Author(s): Catherine Benson Wahlén

The Eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) put off agreement on a draft text on subsidy prohibitions relating to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and overfished stocks, among other decisions. The Ministerial Conference adopted a decision to “continue to engage constructively in the fisheries subsidies negotiations,” with the aim of adopting an agreement in 2019.

The conference took place from 10-13 December, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The Ministerial Conference meets at least once every two years and includes participants from the WTO’s 164 members.

In addition to the agreement to continue negotiations to secure a deal on fisheries subsidies, WTO members agreed on a number of other ministerial decisions, such as extending the practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmission for another two years and work programmes on small economies and the creation of a working party on accession for South Sudan. WTO members also discussed, but did not conclude, talks on public stockholding for food security purposes and other issues under the agricultural negotiations pillar. According to the WTO, members “expressed their disappointment over the lack of progress” and committed to continuing to move forward with negotiations on all remaining issues.

Negotiations on fisheries subsidies at the WTO began in 2001 at the Doha Ministerial Conference. In 2017, a series of meetings took place on the negotiating texts in preparation for the Ministerial Conference. In July 2017, the Chair of the WTO Negotiating Group on Rules (NGR), Ambassador Wayne McCook (Jamaica), circulated a compilation matrix reflecting seven textual proposals. Participants further refined these texts in meetings in October and November. In his report to the WTO, McCook reported on the group’s discussions, saying it had created streamlined texts on issues related to transparency and special and differential treatment, and was holding continued discussions on IUU, overfished stocks and transparency to try to achieve further convergence.

Fisheries subsidies are also addressed in the Sustainable Development Goal on life below water (SDG 14). SDG target 14.6 aims to, “by 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing, and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries (LDCs) should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiation.”

In the ‘Draft Ministerial Declaration on Fisheries Subsidies (WT/MIN (17)/W/5),’ WTO members agree to continue to engage in negotiations with the aim of adopting a decision in 2019 on “an agreement on comprehensive and effective disciplines that prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing country members and LDC members should be an integral part of these negotiations.” Members also recommit to implementation of existing notification obligations under Article 25.3 of the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures that strengthen transparency with respect to fisheries subsidies.

In his closing statement, WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo reminded delegates that progress at MC 11 “would [have] require[d] a leap in members’ positions”, which he said did not occur. He further observed that, “we can’t deliver at every ministerial” and acknowledged progress in gaining greater understanding of members’ positions and concerns. Still, Azevêdo said, in taking work forward, “we need to do some real soul searching” and make compromises, emphasizing that “multilateralism doesn’t mean that we get what we want. It means that we get what is possible.” On the decision on fisheries subsidies, Azevêdo said the re-commitment to providing information about subsidy programmes will be critical to completing negotiations in the future.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) hosted a side event on fisheries subsidies during the conference, with the aim of galvanizing momentum for an agreement. The event discussed prohibition of certain fish subsidies, regulatory issues, market access and fish management systems. Participants also underscored the importance of fish and fish products for poverty reduction, food security and nutrition, international trade and development. Speaking at the event, UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi said, “Should there be no fisheries agreement at MC11, we must find other platforms within the UN to continue the discussions to ensure a solution is found by 2020.”

At the UN Ocean Conference in June 2107, UNCTAD, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) released a joint statement and registered a voluntary commitment to expand trade-related aspects of SDG 14 between now and 2020.