WTO members committed to continue the momentum on fisheries subsidies negotiations during a first cluster of meetings for 2021.
Members discussed a proposal from Ecuador to define what qualifies as “artisanal fishing” and which reference points, if any, besides maximum sustainable yield should be used to determine whether a particular fish stock is being maintained at a biologically sustainable level.
Members also discussed whether to allow non-violation complaints under the fisheries subsidies agreement.
World Trade Organization (WTO) members have committed to continue the momentum on fisheries subsidies negotiations, with many noting that members must deliver an agreement as soon as possible. During a first cluster of meetings for 2021, held in January, negotiations focused on a second revision of the chair’s draft consolidated text, including discussions on stock assessments, artisanal fisheries, and whether to allow non-violation complaints (NVCs) under the fisheries subsidies agreement.
The WTO’s 11th Ministerial Conference (MC11) and SDG target 14.6 give negotiators the task of securing an agreement on eliminating subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and to prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing by the end of 2020. In March 2020, the COVID-19 crisis resulted in the suspension of in-person meetings, and members used online meetings and written exchanges to continue negotiations. Despite their efforts and “almost daily” meetings in late November, WTO members were unable to finish negotiations by the 14 December informal meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee. WTO members committed to build on their 2020 progress and reach a resolution in 2021.
In January 2021, members have advanced discussions through a first cluster of meetings. This cluster included plenary meetings, bilaterals, and consultations by the chair of the negotiations, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, with over 20 members. Ambassador Wills described the cluster of meetings as a “constructive start,” and welcomed members’ shared sense of urgency to conclude the negotiations.
On stock assessments, members discussed which reference points, if any, besides maximum sustainable yield should be used to determine whether a particular fish stock is being maintained at a biologically sustainable level and should be exempted from the prohibition of capacity-enhancing subsidies. The latest version of the draft consolidated text includes a footnote that lists alternative reference points besides maximum sustainable yield that can be used to assess fish stocks. Some members suggested simplifying the provision to include all possible methods that rely on data, rather than explicitly listing different data points. Other members said they would not accept a fisheries subsidies agreement that is “watered down by exceptions” that rely on fisheries management and stock assessments. Some members cautioned against creating loopholes in the agreement that would allow the use of unreliable stock assessment methods.
On artisanal fisheries, members discussed a proposal from Ecuador to define what qualifies as “artisanal fishing” and would therefore be exempted from a prohibition on subsidies related to overfished stocks, and overfishing and overcapacity. Some members said they prefer the approach in the chair’s consolidated text where the territorial seas, defined as 12 nautical miles from the shore, of developing countries and least developed countries (LDCs) would instead be “carved out of subsidy prohibitions” under specific disciplines in chapters on IUU fishing, overfished stocks, and overfishing and overcapacity. Members in favor of using the nautical mile approach argued that the territorial seas are where most small-scale fishers operate and are therefore a more pragmatic way to apply exemptions. Other members supported defining artisanal fisheries, an approach which, as currently proposed, would also apply to developed countries’ artisanal fishers.
Members discussed whether to allow NVCs under the fisheries subsidies agreement. In the context of trade in goods and services, governments can bring NVCs to the Dispute Settlement Body under current WTO rules, even when an agreement has not been violated, if one government can show it has been deprived of an expected benefit because of another government’s action. Most members expressed their view that NVCs should be excluded in the dispute settlement chapter of the fisheries subsidies agreement because they felt NVCs are more relevant in relation to market access than in sustainability discussions. Some members, however, said it was too early to discuss NVCs because the core subsidy prohibitions are not yet defined. Giving up the possibility of NVCs would also limit the scope for enforcing the agreement through dispute settlement, they warned.
On special and differential treatment for developing countries and LDCs, Ambassador Didier Chambovey of Switzerland was appointed in 2020 as a “Friend of the Chair” to facilitate discussions on the topic. On the last day of the January cluster, he said a “lot of work remains to be done” to develop mutually agreeable solutions.
The chair intends to call a second cluster of meetings from 15-19 February 2021. In addition, members will continue to meet intersessionally. [WTO Press Release] [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]