Tensions rise as WTO subsidies negotiation deadline looms

Published on
December 1, 2020

With the World Trade Organization currently hosting last-ditch talks on ending harmful fisheries subsidies, there is increased worry among observers that a deal may not get done.

Delegations are working to close the gaps in a text circulated at the WTO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, according to Annabelle Bladon, a researcher on the blue economy at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

"These talks have been going on for years and the issues are extremely urgent,” Bladon told SeafoodSource. “The WTO agreed to the Sustainable Development Goal 14.6 target, which has its deadline as 2020, and the WTO stated that this was the final round of meetings – already this is an extension of the original 2019 deadline.”

The IIED has said a deal at the WTO "would be a crucial marker" ahead of next year’s United Nations biodiversity conference in Kunming, China. The London, United Kingdom-based organization estimates that 63 percent of all fisheries subsidies – or USD 22 billion (EUR 18.3 billon) annually  – go toward efforts to increase catches, such as securing access to fishing areas and subsidizing fuel costs.

Subsidies are skewed “overwhelmingly” to large, industrial fishing fleets – “a major cause of overfishing and the destruction of marine ecosystems,” Bladon said. A deal to end subsidies will help to preserve the livelihoods of more than 120 million people globally, and the nutrition of billions of people who depend on the ocean for their primary source of protein, according to the IIED.

Also hoping for a deal is the Marine Stewardship Council, which put out a press release on 23 November stating that overfished stocks have increased from 27 percent to 34 percent, in part enabled by harmful subsidies, since 2001, when the WTO initiated negotiations on fishing subsidies. Other supporters of a WTO deal include Peter Thomson, the U.N. Special Envoy for the Oceans and co-chair of Friends for Ocean Action, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Environmental Justice Foundation, WWF International, and more than 170 civil society organizations.

However, in order to get a deal, the cooperation of China – the operator of the world’s largest distant-water fleet – will be necessary. But recently, anger in China has grown in response to criticism of its distant-water fleet.

China’s distant-water fisheries sector is being “smeared” by “countries and organizations with malicious intent,” Liu Xinzhong, described as a “first-level inspector” of the Fisheries and Fisheries Bureau at the Agriculture Ministry, told the People’s Daily – the leading press organ of the Chinese Communist Party. Liu described the country’s distant-water fishing companies as “responsible” and noted the country was “taking the initiative” in global fisheries management. 

Photo courtesy of World Trade Organization

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