Members were not able to agree on a broader rule to curb subsidies that contribute to excessive fishing pressure because negotiations over the broader rule, and exceptions to it for developing countries, did not manage to find a landing ground.
Members committed to come back to these elements and to build a more comprehensive agreement after this one enters into force.
As the treaty is implemented, its rules will contribute to better alignment between subsidy policies and sustainability objectives.
By Alice Tipping, Lead, Sustainable Trade and Fisheries Subsidies, IISD, and Tristan Irschlinger, Policy Advisor, Fisheries Subsidies, IISD
After more than two decades of negotiations, members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) clinched a new multilateral deal on fisheries subsidies. The new treaty includes a set of rules prohibiting subsidies to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, to the fishing of overfished stocks, and to fishing on the high seas outside the control of regional fisheries management organizations.
The agreement was reached in the early hours of 17 June 2022 at the global trade body’s Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12) in Geneva, Switzerland. The event was originally planned to conclude on 15 June but was extended for one additional day to provide more time for trade officials to achieve consensus on several topics.
The treaty is a slimmed down version of a draft agreement on fisheries subsidies circulated by the negotiations chair, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, just days ahead of the conference. Members were not able to agree on a broader rule to curb subsidies that contribute to excessive fishing pressure because negotiations over the broader rule, and exceptions to it for developing countries, did not manage to find a landing ground. However, members committed to come back to these elements and to build a more comprehensive agreement after this one enters into force.
The agreement includes prohibitions under three key articles. Under Article 3, governments agree not to provide subsidies to fishing vessels and operators that have been found to engage in IUU fishing. Under Article 4, governments agree not to subsidize the fishing of fish stocks that are in an overfished condition. This rule includes an important qualifier, however, that allows subsidization to continue when the subsidies themselves, or other management measures, are implemented to rebuild fish stocks to a sustainable level. Under Article 5, WTO members agree not to provide subsidies to fishing and fishing-related activities on the high seas that are outside the competence of a regional fisheries management organization. Fishing in these areas is not subject to any conservation rules, meaning the risk that subsidies lead to overfishing is particularly high.
Governments also agree to exercising special care when they provide subsidies in situations where the subsidizing government has less control over the impact of fishing it subsidizes: when subsidies are provided to vessels not flying the subsidizing government’s flag, and when subsidies are provided to the fishing of stocks whose health is unknown. The deal also includes new rules on transparency which require members to notify to the WTO, information related to the subsidies they provide to fisheries.
While not as ambitious as the draft text trade officials started negotiating from at the start of the conference, this agreement is a deeply significant policy step. It is the first time that a WTO agreement has been established to address environmental issues. It establishes a coherent set of innovative global rules on fisheries subsidies which go far beyond anything similar agreed in regional or bilateral agreements, putting paid to the usual maxim that agreements among larger groups of governments tend to be less ambitious. As the treaty is implemented, its rules will contribute to better alignment between subsidy policies and sustainability objectives. They will also serve to increase the transparency of government support measures to a sector that is a crucial contributor to incomes and food security. It is a remarkable achievement. [Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies]