WTO talks on deal to end fishery subsidies likely to reconvene in June

WTO members negotiating a deal on ending harmful fisheries subsidies
WTO members negotiating a deal on ending harmful fisheries subsidies | Photo courtesy of the WTO
6 Min

World Trade Organization (WTO) members are expected to reconvene in June to negotiate a deal that eliminates harmful fishery subsidies, according to Ernesto Fernández Monge, a senior officer at The Pew Charitable Trusts who has been a leading observer of the talks across the course of their failed attempts.

According to Monge, Icelandic WTO Ambassador Einar Gunnarsson, who is chairing the talks, recently approached WTO member delegations in Geneva, Switzerland, asking to continue negotiations. Besides the possibility of kickstarting negotiations again, Monge is also hopeful that the 2022 fisheries subsidies agreement which these ongoing negotiations aim to build upon, will come into force by year's end.

“[Progress] feels slow, but that is the reality of domestic parliamentary processes. I still have high hopes that it can take effect later this year. This fact not only demonstrates leadership but is also a significant signal for smaller countries, especially those on the receiving end of distant-water fishing,” he said. “The good news is that most of the major subsidizers have already notified their acceptance to the WTO.”

The 2022 agreement banned subsidies that supported illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, as well as subsidies that supported the fishing of overfished stocks that have no management measures in place.

In order for enforcement to take place, though, the agreement must be ratified by 110 WTO members, but only 71 had ratified the agreement as of early March. Under a sunset clause in the agreement, it must be ratified by 2026 or will become void.

Though negotiations have so far failed to reach an agreement, Gunnarson has remained upbeat upon reflection of the most recent round of negotiations, which took place in Abu Dhabi in March.

“We came extremely close in Abu Dhabi to concluding the second wave of negotiations,” he said. “We were able to identify workable solutions acceptable to a very broad spectrum of members on issues that have been deadlocked for decades.”

Progress was made on limiting subsidies that go toward distant-water fishing activities, Gunnarson said; however, WTO members remain deadlocked on the extent and phase-in periods of exemptions for developing nations that wish to pay subsidies to artisanal fisheries.

Some developing countries object to any deal that limits payments to subsistence fishing, arguing that leading industrialized fishing nations are the chief culprits of overfishing globally and should be the primary targets of the ban on subsidies. 

Leading the charge among these developing nations is India, which pays out USD 300 million (EUR 276 million) annually to its fishing fleet, well behind China, which pays USD 7.4 billion (EUR 6.8 billion) a year in subsidies to its fleet, the E.U. at USD 3.8 billion (EUR 3.5 billion), and the U.S. at USD 3.4 billion (EUR 3.1 billion).

Monge said the progress made in Abu Dhabi will help to form the basis of discussions during the next negotiating process. 

“Now, members need to start engaging again with the aim of maintaining the tradeoff made and closing the gap on the small list of outstanding issues,” he said. “We expect members will come back in June after a quiet period of reflection and, hopefully, with the right political conditions and without entering into a blame game. Members might be able to get consensus on the remaining issues on the table in the coming months in Geneva.”

Key components of a new deal include forcing major fishing powers like China, Russia, and the E.U. to disclose information to the WTO regarding their distant-water operations. 

An effective agreement will “help small coastal nations make big subsidizers accountable,” Monge said, “provided they take action domestically.”

As an alternative solution in case a WTO deal does not get done, Christine McDaniel, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, has called for a plurilateral deal under which a group of WTO members would agree to regulations and knowledge-sharing.

“The lack of outcomes in Abu Dhabi shows just how difficult it is to reach agreement these days, but in the case of global IUU fishing, not all countries have to agree to the same exact rules and provisions in order to turn things around,” she wrote in a Forbes report. “The WTO members that have already agreed to act on harmful fisheries subsidies can pursue a plurilateral [deal] and prevent further depletion of global fisheries stocks.”

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