WTO Fisheries Subsidies Negotiations Focus on Overfishing

Members focused on two articles in the chair’s draft consolidated text related to subsidies on overfished stocks and on overcapacity and overfishing. Members “continued to disagree” on how to determine whether a stock is overfished and whose stock assessment should be given precedence in a case of conflicting determinations.

At the most recent cluster of meetings to advance negotiations on an agreement to curb harmful fisheries subsidies, World Trade Organization (WTO) members discussed ways to align draft provisions on subsidies concerning overfished stocks with draft provisions on subsidies that aim to prevent overfishing. WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala called on members to ensure the WTO reaches an agreement by July 2021.

The Informal Open-ended Negotiating Group on Rules met on 8 April and from 12-16 April.

The WTO’s 11th Ministerial Conference (MC11) and SDG target 14.6 give negotiators the task of securing an agreement on eliminating subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and to prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing by the end of 2020. In March 2020, the COVID-19 crisis resulted in the suspension of in-person meetings, and members used online meetings and written exchanges to continue negotiations. Despite their efforts and “almost daily” meetings in late November, WTO members were unable to finish negotiations by the 14 December informal meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee. WTO members committed to build on their 2020 progress and reach a resolution in 2021.

On 8 April, members focused on two articles in the chair’s draft consolidated text: Article 4 (Prohibition on Subsidies Concerning Overfished Stocks) and Article 5 (Prohibition on Subsidies Concerning Overcapacity and Overfishing). Members discussed whether Article 4 will be necessary when Article 5 addresses similar provisions. Some members felt Article 4 is necessary to ensure a chapter on overfished stocks, stressing the “seriousness of the situation when it arises.” Others said Article 4 would only be necessary if the prohibition would be stricter and contain fewer expectations that currently proposed in Article 5. Other members argued Article 5 would be sufficient on its own.

Members “continued to disagree” on how to determine whether a stock is overfished and whose stock assessment should be given precedence in a case of conflicting determinations. They also did not reach agreement on whether and how developing countries should be exempted from the prohibition.

Members shared their views on whether subsidies should be completely stopped when stocks were already overfished. Article 4 currently outlines an exception that would allow members to grant subsidies when stocks are overfished “as long as appropriate measures are implemented to promote the rebuilding of the stock to a sustainable level.” Article 5 contains a similar exception, allowing members to grant subsidies that contribute to overfishing if they can “demonstrate fisheries management is in place for sustainability.” Some members emphasized the complexity of subsidies, saying some can help rebuild stocks and recommending using sustainability criteria.

During the April cluster, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala urged heads of delegations to remain engaged in the fisheries subsidies negotiations, and called on members to “remain flexible and available as and when needed” to ensure the WTO reaches an agreement by July. She said the talks have “reached a considerable degree of maturity,” and members should make compromises to conclude the negotiations. Okonjo-Iweala urged heads of delegations to focus on the text, draft adjustments to address their concerns, react to other members’ suggestions, and come up with language that “speaks to 14.6, to the sustainability of our fisheries.” Okonjo-Iweala stressed concluding the negotiations is “a top priority” for fisheries and for the WTO system.

The chair of the negotiations, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, requested that the 12-16 April cluster of plenary and small group meetings convene at the heads of delegations level. He emphasized the importance of convening at the heads of delegations level, explaining the views from heads of delegations “are extremely helpful in finding a path forward that we could not find at the technical level.” Wills further asked members to focus on artisanal and subsistence fishing, due process for determinations of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and drafting changes for overfishing and overcapacity. 

This article was originally posted on the IISD SDG Knowledge Hub.