WWF’s Michele Kuruc hopeful about eventual WTO fuel subsidies deal

The deadline for a World Trade Organization (WTO) deal on fishing subsidies was recently extended due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions that impeded negotiations. However, delegates have been mulling an Indian proposal that would grant developing countries the right to subsidize their fleets, with the definition of “developing country” based on average per capita gross national income and their take of the global wild catch. Under the provision, China, the European Union, South Korea, and Taiwan would be forced to stop subsidizing their distant-water fleets, while many smaller developing countries – many of them hosts to Chinese fishing bases – would be allowed to continue subsidies.

Following the negotiations closely is the WWF Vice President of Ocean Policy Michele Kuruc – a lawyer and veteran of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, where she served as an advisor on illegal fishing issues and related enforcement measures. She has also worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the U.S.A. Kuruc spoke to SeafoodSource about her thoughts concerning the prospects for a deal.

SeafoodSource: What is the main reason for the current slow movement in talks?

Kuruc: There are still several competing proposals for an agreement and different positions on the scope and framing of potential prohibitions on harmful subsidies and how far certain countries are willing to go to negotiate and compromise.

SeafoodSource: Can you detail briefly a few of these competing proposals?

Kuruc: Regardless of the various proposals, it’s important not to lose sight that a broader prohibition on harmful subsidies will provide benefits to both the fish stocks and the fishing communities that depend on them.

SeafoodSource: How united is the developing world as a bloc in the negotiations?

Kuruc: It does not appear that there necessarily is a unified bloc, as the category of developing countries in the WTO encompasses the majority of member countries, ranging from big fishing nations, such as China, to least-developed countries with small fleets. Not only are many of the developing and least-developed countries suffering from overfishing in their own waters as a result of distant-water fishing fleets, but they are also suffering from IUU fishing. So, while it would seem clear that these countries would support a stronger agreement that significantly limits harmful fisheries subsidies that contribute to distant-water fleets and to IUU fishing, that is not always the case. 

SeafoodSource: Are you hopeful a deal will get done?

Kuruc: Because countries have committed to the U.N.’s SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] and take them seriously and, the [remaining] issues [to be decided] are very significant. There is still a need for countries to compromise on issues and approaches, but there is significant motivation around the world to meet the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 14 and to finally get an agreement done by 2020. We are hopeful that it will be a meaningful one. [Editor’s note: 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, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the World Trade Organization fisheries subsidies negotiation.”]

SeafoodSource: The view of some big developing nations – for example, India – as to what constitutes “harmful” subsidy differs from many Western countries views. Can this gap be closed?

Kuruc: Yes. It's definitely in the interest of a country like India, with thousands of coastal fishermen, to ensure that their fishery resources are managed in a sustainable way so that the coastal communities that depend on fishing can continue for generations. And it's clear that capacity-enhancing subsidies undermine the sustainable management of those fisheries and are leading to overfishing and the collapse of stocks all over the world. Ultimately, both the developed and developing countries that continue to provide subsidies for their domestic or distant-water fleets are sacrificing the long-term stability of both their own fishermen who depend on the resource, as well as fishermen in other countries, for very short-term benefits. 

SeafoodSource: Do Indian negotiators have a point when they say that subsidies for in-shore fishing or supports to incomes of fishermen should not be classed as harmful and should be treated differently from subsidies for distant-water overfishing?

Kuruc: Programs for retraining, promoting other skills, and other social services, including many types of support, may be seen as needed in some communities, but harmful subsidies to continue fishing activities that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing should be prohibited.

SeafoodSource: Is it possible to get a deal without loopholes that effectively allow companies in a big distant-water nation like China to move its fleets to somewhere like Ghana and continue as before –would the end of fuel subsidies be sufficient to prevent this?

Kuruc: A prohibition on fuel subsidies given to the fisheries sector would significantly diminish the ability of distant-water fleets to continue operating. Many of those fleets would be operating at a loss without those subsidies. Fuel subsidies also support environmentally damaging deep-sea trawling, which is highly fuel-intensive.

SeafoodSource: Would the ongoing issue of reflagging impede the potential ability of a deal on subsidies to curb IUU fishing?

Kuruc: Reflagging and utilizing flags of noncompliance involves many issues.

SeafoodSource: How useful is the development in recent years of new technological solutions for monitoring IUU in bringing different fishing nations to the negotiating table?

Kuruc: The new technologies for monitoring IUU, such as tracking vessel movements by analyzing their AIS, are great developments, but alone probably have not done much to change the calculations for countries in how they approach a deal. It's also clear that a deal on ending certain types of subsidies is just one – though essential – tool, among many, including import controls, catch documentation, and traceability requirements, which countries need to be moving towards to better combat IUU fishing.

SeafoodSource: What is the status of the European Union in the WTO negotiations? What appear to be its primary objectives?

Kuruc: The E.U. – particularly as a result of demands by member states such as France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Poland, and some others – has put forth recent proposals that appear to have significantly reduced its past ambitions for a strong agreement. Ongoing E.U. negotiations on the possible reintroduction of certain capacity-enhancing subsidies, such as for construction and fleet renewal, which have been banned in the E.U. for 15 years, are highly concerning. This would be a huge step back, but there is still hope that the E.U. will refrain from taking this step. This and the fact that the E.U. recently put forward weaker proposals to the WTO is certainly damaging to their ability to lead the way in the WTO towards establishing a strong agreement.  We hope that the E.U. and its member states are able to recognize the long-term value in a strong agreement both for its own fisheries and fleets operating around the world, as well as for fish stocks and coastal communities around the world.

SeafoodSource: What national systems are in place that you perceive to be most helpful in combating IUU in lieu of a deal on fuel subsidies? What else is needed besides the WTO deal to ensure greater sustainability of global fisheries?

Kuruc: The E.U.’s carding system and catch documentation and the U.S. Seafood Import Monitoring Program are incredibly important to helping to combat IUU fishing. [However,] there is still a lack of adequate transparency in fishing operations overall. These efforts to better document catch information, require traceability, and to prohibit imports from illegal sources are crucial to changing behavior out on the water. A subsidies agreement adds another tool to establishing more responsible and sustainable fisheries management, and complements the changes that governments and fisheries around the world are already making to comply with the increased demands for transparency.

Photo courtesy of WWF


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