Will the WTO succeed to bring world fisheries to sustainability?

Trade Ministers will have the final word on a fisheries subsidies agreement at the Buenos Aires WTO Ministerial Conference next week (10-13 Dec. 2017)

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – Geneva/Buenos Aires, 5 December 2017

Negotiations on the elimination of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overfishing, overcapacity, and illegal (IUU[1]) fishing have been going on at the World Trade Organization as far back as 1999. But this year, expectations have never been so high to agree on a binding international agreement .

If adopted at next week’s 11th WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, an agreement to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies would give a clear signal that the international community is serious about implementing UN Sustainable Development Goal n°14. The so-called “Ocean SDG” commands to prohibit by 2020 “fisheries subsidies, which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing […] and to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.” [2]

Most fisheries subsidies directly encourage fleet overcapacity and fishing beyond economic and ecological reason. As long as we keep providing these financial incentives, all efforts to bring world fisheries to sustainability will be vain”, said Claire Nouvian, Founder of BLOOM, a Paris-based marine conservation NGO. “If governments truly want to preserve viable fishing sectors and small-scale fishing communities, they need to tackle the issue of harmful fisheries with no further delay.” Nouvian refers to the fact that 84% of global subsidies go to large-scale fisheries, thus undermining the livelihood of small-scale fishers.[3] According to a research published by the University of British Columbia, the highest spenders are China, Japan, the EU, the US and Russia.

The issue of harmful fisheries subsidies was given new impetus[4] when in September 2015, as part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), all Heads of State and Government pointed to the WTO to prohibit them by 2020.

The issue has been championed by several countries and groups of countries, including New Zealand, the EU, and a group of six Latin American countries (Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru and Uruguay). The African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) and the Least Developed Countries Group (LDCs) are also in favour of a prohibition, as long as their need for special and differential treatment is taken into account.

In the last few weeks, trade negotiators at WTO Headquarters in Geneva have given indications that an agreement has never been so close. The final outcome will depend on the political will of only few countries, mainly from the Asian continent.

“Reaching an agreement in Buenos Aires is crucial because of the legally binding nature of WTO rules”, said Rémi Parmentier of the Varda Group, a political adviser to BLOOM. “We have heard governments many times say that public funding of unsustainable and destructive fishing activities should be cut, but to be frank, it’s starting to sound like a broken record unless and until Trade Ministers formalize the commitment at the WTO. Now is the time to put words into action.”

Issues that will dominate Buenos Aires’ discussions include the scope of the prohibitions and how and when those will apply in developing countries. Some would like to restrict the decision to subsidies that encourage illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, but such a narrow scope would fall short of meeting the mandate of SDG14 on the ocean.

At the end of the day, if the multilateral common denominator is too low, the countries advocating strong subsidies disciplines will need to gauge whether a high ambition plurilateral outcome is preferable, in addition or instead of low ambition multilateral agreement.

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Media Contact:

Ines de Agueda:   ines {{a}} vardagroup.org

Buenos Aires time zone from 6 to 16 December

Available for comments and interviews – in person or virtual, in English, Spanish and French:

Claire Nouvian, CEO and Founder of BLOOM

Rémi Parmentier, Director of The Varda Group & political adviser to BLOOM

Dr. Rashid Sumaila, Fisheries economist, University of British Columbia

Interviews with Peter Thomson, UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean can also be facilitated.

Media briefing in Buenos Aires

A media briefing to inform on progress of negotiations will take place on Tuesday 12 December, 12:30, Room 405, CKK Center (WTO MC-11 NGO Center).

Spokespersons for the BLOOM & Varda Low Hanging Fish campaign will speak at several events and can provide their prognosis on the WTO negotiations upon demand.

[1] IUU: illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.

[2] SDG14.6: 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, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the World Trade Organization fisheries subsidies negotiation.

[3] Schuhbauer et al. (2017) How subsidies affect the economic viability of small-scale fisheries. Marine Policy 82: 114-121.

[4] See The Low Hanging Fish by BLOOM and The Varda Group, Sept 2017: goo.gl/RzqiwZ

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