WTO fishing subsidies negotiations resume, with exemptions for developing nations a key issue

Published on
January 25, 2021

World Trade Organization members have restarted negotiations on ending harmful fisheries subsidies, with the key issue of exemptions for artisanal fisheries and developing nations under debate.

WTO members reopened formal negotiations on fisheries subsidies as the heads of delegations met on 22 January in Geneva, Switzerland. The organization had hoped for a deal in 2020, but talks repeatedly stalled over the issue of special treatment for developing countries. Some developing countries involved in the negotiations have called for an exemption from any ban on harmful subsidies, after China's claim to be classed as a developing nation created tension in earlier phases of the talks.

Members are using a second revision of a text circulated on 18 December by Colombian Ambassador to the WTO Santiago Wills, who is chairing the talks, as the basis of their negotiations. But divisions have arisen over disagreement as to whether the final document should be comprised of a list of prohibited subsidies, or whether it should be centered around effects-based approach that considers the actual impact of a subsidy. Some of the key issues being discussed include wording for which reference points should be used to determine whether a certain fish stock is being maintained at a "biologically sustainable level" and therefore be exempted from the prohibition on capacity-building subsidies. A reference point commonly used in fishery quota-setting is maximum sustainable yield (MSY).

According to press briefing notes issued by the WTO, some members are wary of potential loopholes in any agreement that would allow the use of unreliable stock assessment methods. Others have reiterated they won’t accept a fisheries subsidies agreement that is watered down by exceptions that rely on fisheries management and stock assessments.

Ecuador, meanwhile, has proposed the talks define what qualifies as "artisanal fishing" so as to exempt that sector from a prohibition on subsidies related to overfished stocks and fleet overcapacity.

Wills has called for a second cluster of in-person meetings between 15 and 19 February. In the meantime, negotiators will continue their discussions remotely due to COVID-19 health precautions.

Photo courtesy of World Trade Organization

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