25 June 2019
WTO Fisheries Negotiations: Failure Is Not An Option
Photo by Duangphorn Wiriya on Unsplash
story highlights

The WTO negotiations on eliminating certain types of fisheries subsidies - the main driver of overfishing - must be completed by the end of 2019.

China recently proposed capping such subisdies with exceptions to be included in a “green box” of exemptions, which we argue should include only subsidies that improve biodiversity conservation; this would force fishing interests to prove they are not hurting ocean life.

Now is the time to demonstrate that multilateral negotiations – and the WTO itself – can play a positive role on the global stage.

Roberto Azevêdo, Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), recently went on record about the importance of completing by year-end the WTO negotiations for the elimination of fisheries subsidies that contribute to illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, overfishing and the overcapacity of fishing fleets and infrastructures. I could not agree with him more.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), 33% of the world’s fish populations are overfished, 60% are being fished to their sustainable limit, and there is a margin for growth in catches of only 7% of the entire world’s fish populations (the so-called “underfished stocks”). And fisheries subsidies are considered to be the main driver of overfishing. For example, economists have shown that some fisheries in the high seas (the area beyond the 200-mile national jurisdiction) simply would not be economically feasible in the absence of government support, given the high fuel costs for long distance travel.

This has led to the ludicrous situation that consumers in many countries are paying double for their fish: first to the taxman, and again to the fishmonger. The environment is paying doubly as well: the unsustainable burning of fossil fuels by too many vessels chasing too few fish, and the unfortunate depletion of fish stocks.

In his op-ed this month, Azevêdo rightly emphasizes the social, environmental and economic reasons to end these harmful subsidies: “In addition to protecting our ocean, an agreement to curb subsidies to fisheries would help ensure the viability of smaller enterprises and create better conditions for economic development in coastal regions.” At present, some 85% of fisheries subsidies worldwide go to the largest industrial fishing fleets, while less than 15% benefit small-scale artisanal fishers.

Azevêdo also recognizes that these negotiations “represent a critically important litmus test as to whether the WTO can continue to deliver multilateral agreements.” This is a critical concern at a time when the WTO trade regime is threatened by the current trade war.

Finally, Azevêdo reminds us that “leaders from more than 190 countries agreed in 2015 that as part of the Sustainable Development Goals an accord would be in place by 2020.” He is referring to target 6 of SDG 14 (life below water), whereby governments agree that they will “by 2020, 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 […]”.

Most SDG targets are set for completion by 2030, but target 14.6 establishes the need to reach agreement “by 2020” – i.e. before the end of this year. If the WTO fails to do so, what kind of precedent will governments be setting in relation to all of the other SDG targets slated for delivery within the next decade?

Conversations on fisheries subsidies within the WTO have been going on for 20 years, beginning at the 3rd Ministerial Conference of the WTO, held in Seattle in 1999. Formal negotiations started two years later as part of the “Doha Round” of trade liberalization talks. While these discussions have dragged on, fish populations have continued to shrink, and scientists are sounding the alarm about large-scale environmental change in the ocean. We cannot afford to take their warnings lightly.

Fortunately, since 2015 when the UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the goal of eliminating harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020, the WTO has been feeling the heat. In the run-up to the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference held in Buenos Aires in December 2017, environmentalists ran a campaign called The Low Hanging Fish, analogous to the concept of picking low-hanging fruit and alluding to the fact that eliminating harmful subsidies is a no-brainer. In response, the ministerial conference agreed unanimously to commit to the 2020 deadline for its negotiations, but it left outstanding details to be worked out by the WTO Rules Committee, a technical body that meets each month at WTO Headquarters in Geneva.

If China’s “green box” proposal is taken forward, governments should ensure that the only allowable subsidies support biodiversity conservation.

Several proposals to eliminate or cap fisheries subsidies have been tabled in recent months at meetings of the Rules Committee. China – a global fishing superpower – most recently proposed to cap fisheries subsidies with the exception of certain types of subsidies to be included in a “green box” of exemptions. Many countries believe that China’s proposed green box is far too broad, allowing for too many loopholes. In principle, however, it is encouraging to see China engaging in good faith in the negotiations. Concern remains that China asks to benefit from the kind of “appropriate and effective special and differential treatment” afforded to developing countries in WTO rules and reflected in the text of SDG target 14.6, but this hopefully will no longer be the case if an agreement is sought on the basis of China’s “green box” approach.

If the green box idea is taken forward, governments should ensure that the only allowable subsidies are aimed at improving biodiversity conservation, e.g. programmes to reduce the size of fishing fleets, to improve monitoring and control, or to promote scientific research. The devil will be in the details of course, but a green box approach has merits, as it shifts the burden of proof. Unlike conventional “black box” approaches (whereby something is allowed unless specifically prohibited), “reverse listing” in the green box could force fishing interests to prove they’re not hurting ocean life. China is proposing a review of the arrangement after ten years; this is far too long, but a two-year review could serve as an adequate safety net.

It is always a challenge to reach agreement in an international organization that requires unanimity. Even more so in the WTO, as it struggles to stave off the current protectionist tendencies of its largest member economy. But it is precisely because of this struggle that failure is not an option. Now is the time to demonstrate that multilateral negotiations – and the WTO itself – can play a positive role on the global stage.

The author of this guest article, Rémi Parmentier, is Director of the Varda Group consultancy. He has been an environmental advocate at the WTO for the last 20 years. He is a strategic advisor on trade issues to the Friends of Ocean Action. Twitter: @RemiParmentier

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