WTO meeting begins with presentation of draft of agreement to curb fishing subsidies

WTO members at the MC13 meeting on 26 February 2024.
WTO members at the MC13 meeting on 26 February 2024 | Photo courtesy of the WTO
4 Min

An updated draft text of an agreement to end harmful fishing subsidies has been presented for ministerial approval at the WTO’s Thirteenth Ministerial Conference (MC13), which opened Monday, 26 February in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.

WTO negotiators are seeking to build on a 2022 agreement that forbade the subsidization of illegal fishing by expanding the ban to subsidies that contribute to overfishing and fishing sector overcapacity at large. On 26 February, a further eight countries submitted their acceptance of the treaty, bringing the total to 70, with 110 needed for it to enter into force.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala urged WTO members to push to update the treaty at MC13, despite general pessimism regarding whether a deal will get done.

"Completion of 'Fish 2' and its rapid entry into force would really put WTO members at the forefront of action on sustainability of our oceans and would safeguard the livelihoods of the 260 million people who depend on these oceans,” she said. “Ending the estimated USD 22 billion [EUR 20.3 billion] per year in harmful fisheries subsidies would free up resources that subsidizers can repurpose, whether to help people domestically or to help the wider world, such as through green financing for poor countries or support for climate-related loss and damage."

Iceland WTO Ambassador Einar Gunnarsson, who has chaired the talks, presented the text after a month of negotiations. Numerous blank spaces remain in the text pending further negotiations, including final wording on the extent of exemptions for developing countries.

Speaking on 14 February at the most recent general council meeting of WTO ambassadors, Gunnarsson said he was “heartened by the positive engagement and problem-solving mode” that all WTO members brought to the negotiations.

The draft text, which has formed the basis of the discussions chaired by Gunnarsson, has suggested a two-tier reporting regime, with the onus on countries with major distant-water fleets to adhere to more stringent reporting standards and poorer developing countries receiving exemptions to allow their subsistence-level fishermen to continue fishing.

This issue has become a sticking point for African, Caribbean, and Pacific nations, which have suggested their small-scale fisheries are being unfairly restrained for damage caused by larger fleets, such as Chinese and European fleets.

“One doesn’t need to be an oceanologist to agree that those who contributed the most to diminishing fish stocks should have the greater responsibility in curtailing exploitative fishing activity and that those small countries that rely on fishing for employment and nutrition should not be constrained,” Barbados WTO Ambassador Matthew Wilson wrote in a recent blog post.

The Pew Charitable Trusts Senior Officer for Conservation Support Ernesto Fernandez Monge said he was “cautiously optimistic” of the grounds for a deal.

“We are hearing positive comments and saw constructive engagement in the last fish month. Members made progress in some areas; in others there is a recognition that ministerial engagement will be needed since there was no more room for technical discussions,” Fernandez Monge told SeafoodSource.

Fernandez Monge warned, though, some of the parties in the negotiations were reverting to earlier positions.

“But, they [have] faced opposition from others, so our sense is that everything might be falling back to the text from December as a possible landing zone, with some adjustments based on the progress they made during fish month,” he said. “As always, there will be wildcards, and we will have to see how they play in Abu Dhabi.”

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