3 June 2021
Special and Differential Treatment for IUU Fishing in Focus at WTO Talks
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WTO members expressed different perspectives during the discussion on special and differential treatment for developing countries as addressed in the IUU fishing chapter of the consolidated draft text.

Several members said they “could live with this text,” seeing that negotiations are “in the end game”.

Another member said no exemptions should be made in the IUU pillar.

The US had previously suggested exploring options to eliminate forced labor on fishing vessels, but the proposal was not discussed during the meeting on 27 May.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) Negotiating Group on Rules continued discussions on a consolidated draft text on ending harmful fisheries subsidies in a series of meetings at the end of May. Members focused on special and differential treatment (S&DT) for developing countries as addressed in the illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing chapter of the consolidated draft text.

The WTO’s Eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11) and SDG target 14.6 give negotiators the task of securing an agreement on eliminating subsidies for 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 (TNC). WTO members committed to build on their 2020 progress and reach a resolution in 2021.

The Informal Open-ended Negotiating Group on Rules (Fisheries Subsidies) convened at the level of heads of delegation on 27, 29, and 31 May.

Article 3.8 in the draft text states that the prohibition under Article 3.1 “shall not apply to subsidies granted or maintained by developing country members, including least developed country (LDC) Members, for low income, resource-poor or livelihood fishing or fishing related activities within 12 nautical miles” measured from the baselines for a period of two years from the date of entry into force of the proposed instrument.

According to a trade source, several developed and developing country members said they “could live with this text,” urging for compromise since negotiations are “in the end game.” One member said the exemption should not be time limited. Another said no exemptions should be made, stressing that IUU fishing is “harmful and illegal.” One large developing country said it did not intend to use S&DT in the IUU section should it be included, and expressed readiness to take on “responsibilities commensurate to its level of development and capacity.”

In further discussions, WTO members debated how to ensure countries do not abuse S&DT exemptions that are meant to serve the most vulnerable. Members suggested a range of options for balancing S&DT with sustainability objectives, including an annex listing qualified developing countries or including an “opt out” clause. One member proposed individual implementation commitments such as those found in the Trade Facilitation Agreement, where developing countries would stipulate for which fishing subsidy prohibitions and for how long they need assistance. Another member called for legal guarantees that “major players” would not be able to take advantage of S&DT exemptions.

According to a trade source, the Chair of the negotiations, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, said the topic of S&DT has been one of the most cited concerns. He said members continue to fall into three categories: those who worry the provisions are too broad and, as such, compromise the effectiveness of the agreement in protecting fish stocks; those who believe the provisions are too narrow; and those who are willing to accept the draft text as a compromise, given the aim of completing negotiations by July 2021. Members who believe the provisions are too narrow expressed concern with determining S&DT based on the “middle ground.” 

On IUU fishing, members debated which IUU fishing determining authorities would need to be recognized, and exchanged views on how automatic the subsidy prohibition should be. The Chair observed that discussions had helped elucidate developing country views that S&DT in the IUU chapter was meant to ensure artisanal fishers’ welfare and address implementation issues, not to permit subsidization of illegal fishing. Representatives of both developed and developing countries said the IUU fishing section of the drat text is approaching compromise.

On 25 May, the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group and Africa Group circulated a joint proposal on S&DT for developing countries for the overfishing and overcapacity chapter of the draft text. The proposal was not discussed during the meeting on 27 May.

During a heads of delegation meeting on 21 April, the US suggested exploring options to eliminate forced labor on fishing vessels. The US said it intended to explore how fisheries subsidies rules, including on IUU fishing, could support efforts to combat forced labor on fishing vessels. The proposal outlines an approach that “consists of (1) the inclusion of effective disciplines on harmful subsidies to fishing activities that may be associated with the use of forced labor; (2) the explicit recognition of the problem and the need to eliminate it; and (3) transparency with respect to vessels or operators engaged in the use of forced labor.” The proposal was not presented during the meeting on 27 May.

WTO members plan to discuss sustainability flexibility in overfishing and overcapacity, distant water fishing, and other topics in meetings that will convene from 2-11 June. [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]  [Draft Consolidated Text 11 May] [SDG Knowledge Hub Story on April Negotiations[SDG Knowledge Hub Story on May Fisheries Subsidies Meetings]

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