WTO Fish

WTO talks on fish subsidies move to ‘final sprint’

A fresh bid has been made to break the 20-year-long deadlock in World Trade Organization negotiations on fisheries subsidies, as negotiators begin their final run-in to a key ministerial meeting in July.

Santiago Wills, the Colombian ambassador who is chairing the fish talks, announced on Tuesday (11 May) that he had put forward a new and “ambitious” compromise text designed to form the basis for an agreement to impose disciplines on subsidies to the fisheries sector.

WTO members are now embarking on two months of intensive negotiations on the draft text before a virtual ministerial meeting on fisheries, starting on 15 July.

“I know it will not be easy for 164 Members to reach consensus, but it is doable. It’s time to sprint for the finish line,” Wills said in a statement accompanying the release of the draft document.

The first step will be a series of “short confessional style meetings” between Wills and key WTO delegations which, the chair said, would give members a chance to “flag key issues in the text that are the toughest for them.” These are to be held next week, on 20 and 21 May.

This will be a prelude to “thematic weeks” starting in the week of 24 May, with each week dedicated to a specific ‘pillar’ within the text.

Special and differential treatment at heart of emerging compromise

The text of the emerging fisheries agreement has remained officially confidential until now. But in an apparent sign of growing confidence, the WTO has now published not only the draft text of the agreement, but also the chair’s explanatory notes on the text – which, at 26 pages, are more than twice as long as the agreement itself.

At the heart of Wills’s latest compromise text – the third revision since an initial consolidated text was tabled late last year – are time-limited exemptions from the rules on fish subsidies for developing countries.

Applying the key WTO principle of ‘special and differential treatment’ for developing countries in the context of fisheries subsidies had been “the toughest area to find convergence,” Wills commented.

Simply exempting the poorest countries from any kinds of discipline would not be appropriate in this instance, he said, given that the whole purpose of the fish subsidy negotiations was to improve the sustainability of marine resources.

“It is essential to ensure that SDT provides the necessary flexibilities while not undermining the overall effectiveness of the disciplines,” he warned.

Multi-year grace periods for developing countries

The draft agreement would give developing countries an extra two years beyond the date of entry into force to phase out subsidies which benefit illegal and unreported fishing activity, or which are targeted at overfished stocks.

Meanwhile, two alternative variants have been tabled for dealing with the third and most substantial ‘pillar’ of the agreement, namely subsidies liable to promote overcapacity in the fish sector. These include vessel construction or renovation grants, or the subsidisation of fuel or other operational costs.

The paper suggests that either:

  • Developing countries should only be covered by the subsidy ban if these states make a non-trivial contribution to global fish catches; or
  • Developing countries should be exempt from these subsidy bans for a period of five to seven years – a period for which the countries concerned may request an extension.

Fish subsidies to be banned – unless they aim at sustainability

The approach taken in the core ‘pillar’ relating to subsidies contributing to overcapacity or overfishing is that all such subsidies are to be banned in principle. But exemptions can apply if a member can demonstrate that “measures are implemented to maintain the stock or stocks in the relevant fishery or fisheries at a biologically sustainable level.”

Government-to-government payments, such as are typically paid out under fishing agreements to access stocks in another country’s waters, are exempt from the scope of the agreement.

The agreement would put a considerable premium on accurate and timely transmission of data,  both on government subsidies to the fishing sector, and on the biological state of the fish stocks being targeted. A section on notifications and transparency sets out the requirements on member governments.

The settlement of disputes under the agreement would be done, the draft text says, under the provisions of Articles 22 and 23 of the GATT agreement and Article 4 of the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures.

‘Sincere and honest attempt’ at acceptable compromise

The nine-page draft agreement contains noticeably fewer square brackets – denoting areas still for discussion – than previous drafts. Wills said that he had tabled his own compromise text in areas where “differences have persisted” during the long discussions thus far.

He added: “I hope this sincere and honest attempt at balancing ambition and necessary flexibility will help Members agree on landing zones that will make a substantial contribution to the health of our oceans.”

The hope now is that the intensive negotiations over the next couple of months will narrow down differences to the point where ministers can take final political decisions to sign off the deal in July.

“Members have come a long way and their engagement has led us to this point. We now have a complete text in front of us to close the gaps. The health of our very stressed planet is at stake – we cannot afford to let her down,” Wills concluded.

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