WTO fishing subsidies deal pushed to end of year as discord divides main players

Discord amongst the world’s major fishing powers is continuing to hold up a World Trade Organization agreement on fishing subsidies.

A WTO ministerial meeting set for June in Kazakhstan was seen as the deadline for a deal, but that has now been postponed after a WTO staff member tested positive for COVID-19, and also due to travel restrictions imposed as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

Negotiations have effectively been ongoing since 2001, but were scheduled to conclude by the end of 2019 to meet the United Nations’ 2020 Sustainable Development Goals. Negotiators are battling over claims for carve-outs for developing nations, with differences between China and India emerging as a major sticking point.

“Reaching a deal is going to be challenging,” a U.S. delegate to the WTO talks told SeafoodSource, who requested anonymity to comment candidly.

Major progress remains to be made in converging the negotiating proposals made by key players, according to the delegate.

“China has not obstructed progress, but has made proposals that essentially would allow to them to keep all their subsidies or re-classify them as ‘green.’ The other big subsidizers – the E.U., Japan, Korea and Chinese Taipei – have made proposals that would essentially do the same thing,” the delegate said. “Other countries want the big subsidizers to significantly cut the current level of subsidies.”  

A European Commission official who also requested anonymity disputed the U.S. claim.

“That is not correct,” the official said. “The E.U. as a whole strives for an ambitious outcome eliminating all harmful fisheries subsidies. The ambitious proposal that we submitted in Geneva earlier this year would, if adopted, bring about an immediate and qualitative change on the ground eliminating all harmful fisheries subsidies.”

Non-governmental organizations, including the WWF, have also suggested that the E.U. is no longer seeking the most ambitious deal possible, but rather is seeking to retain subsidies due to the demands of key fishing member nations like Spain and Portugal.

The E.U.’s recent proposals at the talks “appear to have significantly reduced its past ambitions for a strong agreement,” according to WWF Vice President of Ocean Policy Michele Kuruc. Kuruc said this shift is tied ongoing E.U. negotiations on the possible reintroduction of subsidies which would allow for construction of new vessels and fleet renewal.

Likewise, Chinese academics and fishery executives watching the WTO negotiations, who requested anonymity, told SeafoodSource the E.U. discussions on the reintroduction of fishery subsidies have taken pressure off China to make concessions on its own subsidies program.

“This is not true either,” the European Commission source said. “No new subsidies have been reintroduced last year. As regards China, this country is by far the biggest subsidizer worldwide. There is a commensurate constant pressure on China throughout the whole negotiations to at least limit the amount of their harmful fisheries subsidies.”

With the cancelation of in-person meetings to discuss next steps, it is less likely that a deal with happen in 2020, the U.S. official said.

“The postponement of the big ministerial that was to happen in June may help, but any deal will only happen at the last possible minute,” the U.S. source said.  

The E.U., meanwhile, “firmly believes that an outcome on fisheries subsidies could be achieved still this year, ideally at a dedicated high-level meeting in Geneva towards the end of the year,” the E.C. official said.

That official stressed “the E.U. is doing its utmost” to ensure a deal is done so that the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals are achieved and the indicators mentioned in SDG 14.6 are also achieved by 2020.”

SDG Goal 14.6 commits nations by 2020 to “…prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and refrain from introducing new such subsidies.”

Speaking in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, E.U. Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan said his team is aiming to “tighten the criteria that determine whether a  subsidy is harmful or not” in order to address overfishing.

“This should include a condition that the subsidy in question doesn’t increase members’ fishing capacity,” Hogan said.

Hogan also said the E.U. will support prohibitions of subsidies aimed at supporting fishing on the high seas and of subsidies to vessels flying so-called flags of convenience. He also said the E.U. would accept transition periods for some WTO members on overcapacity and overfishing, but that these can’t apply for major fishing nations. Likewise, he said, “We cannot accept transition periods for illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing.”

Photo courtesy of World Trade Organization


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