Since the Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2015, including Target 14.6: elimination of harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020, WTO members have had more than two years to sort out this issue before MC11, the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference takes place in Buenos Aires next month. Let alone the nearly twenty years (one human generation!) since this issue first came up on the WTO agenda at the end of the 1990s.

MC11, 10-13 December is fast approaching. Whilst talks on fisheries subsidies disciplines continue in Geneva within the Rules Committee, the outcome remains uncertain.

The Chair of the Rules Negotiating Group has issued a week and a half ago a working document for negotiation covering subsidies contributing to illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing and overfishing. But this proposal is still plagued with square brackets reflecting numerous and sometimes deep differences on issues such as who has responsibility for determining that IUU fishing has been or is being carried out, or who should be entrusted with the task of determining that a fish stock is overfished (national authorities? Regional Fisheries Management Organizations?). The document also shows differences of opinion on who should have the benefit of the doubt when a stock is not assessed: common sense would suggest that in such a case, and in line with the precautionary principle, public authorities should not subsidize fishing operations targeting unassessed stocks, but the Chair’s text reflects an absence of consensus within the Rules Negotiating Group.

Furthermore, the Chair’s text so far is restricted to these two issues. In his introduction, the Chair recognizes that the Negotiating Group “will need to continue its efforts in all remaining areas, with a view to developing similar working texts and otherwise advancing its work on additional prohibitions such as overcapacity and capacity-enhancing subsidies, special and differential treatment, transparency and notifications, standstill, preamble, scope, transitional provisions, and institutional arrangements”.

Negotiators are meeting again in Geneva 27-29 November, presumably for the last time before packing for Buenos Aires where talks will become more intense before and after the arrival of the world’s Trade ministers.

Trade negotiators in Geneva have said that more WTO members have provided text for an agreement, adding to the original list of seven proposals described in The Low Hanging Fish, our report released in September in Geneva. In the last few weeks it has been the turn of Australia, Brazil, China, Guatemala, India, Russia, Seychelles, the US, Venezuela and Hong Kong-China to contribute with their thinking.

With the MC11 deadline approaching, some are proposing to simplify the WTO MC11 decision committing WTO members to act in accordance with SDG14.6, leaving much of the details for later. SDG14.6 is the Sustainable Development Goals target whereby Heads of State and Government committed two years ago to the elimination of harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020, with explicit reference to WTO negotiations. According to a Trade negotiator in Geneva, others are proposing to restrict the scope of the decision to the elimination of subsidies that contribute to Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing and notification (transparency).

India, reportedly, has even suggested that developing countries be exempt from eliminating subsidies contributing to “UU” fishing within their respective Exclusive Economic Zones, thus restricting the scope of fisheries subsidies disciplines only to illegal activities. However, until now the Africa-Caribbean-Pacific (ACP) and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) groups have advocated a different approach: a transition period for developing countries to eliminate subsidies that contributed to IUU fishing. The Chair of the Rules Negotiating Group has been reportedly consulting with India and other WTO members to find a solution. Australia, Canada, the EU, New Zealand, the US are among those opposing India’s proposal.

Restricting the scope of the WTO decision to IUU fishing would be inappropriate, given the language in SDG14.6 which explicitly commits governments to eliminate fisheries subsidies that contribute to overfishing and to overcapacity. We share the view of those WTO members arguing that, in order to be environmentally sound, WTO fisheries subsidies disciplines must address fuel subsidies, maybe the largest component of fisheries subsidies and one with the greatest environmental and social impacts (energy-angry bottom trawling, distant water and high seas fleets, etc.).

If the issue of overcapacity and overcapacity-enhancing subsidies is not comprehensively addressed this year, MC11 should at minimum agree a solid road map to secure compliance on this issue with the 2020 SDG14.6 deadline. Along that line, and in the light of the difficulty to reach agreement on a draft text that can be considered by Trade ministers in Buenos Aires, we have heard that Australia has proposed the adoption by MC11 of a political statement by which WTO members would reiterate the commitment made by their Heads of State and Government to meet SDG14 Target 6.

This would be better than nothing, of course. But negotiators and Trade ministers would still have a hard time to explain why it is taking more than 20 years to eliminate public subsidies that are lethal for the ocean.

Additional Reading on the WTO Negotiations:

In ICTSD Bridges, 23 November 2017: WTO fisheries Negotiators Update Draft Texts on IUU, Overfishing

In ICTSD Bridges, 9 November 2017: WTO Negotiators Debate Revisions to Integrated Fisheries Text

In IISD SDG Knowledge Hub, 1st November 2017: Leading up to Ministerial, WTO Negotiating Group Focuses on Fisheries Subsidies

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