Fisheries subsidies at the Eleventh WTO Ministerial Conference – Deal or no deal?

Fisheries subsidies at the Eleventh WTO Ministerial Conference – Deal or no deal?
Photo credit: WorldFish | Flickr

13 Dec 2017

On Monday at the Eleventh WTO Ministerial Conference, the UNCTAD event on ‘Trade, Fisheries Subsidies and SDG14’ provided a platform for discussion to give a deeper understanding of some of the trade-related aspects of SDG 14, including regulatory issues, prohibition of certain fish subsidies, market access and fish management systems.

The ministerial-led event was an opportunity for enhanced consensus building at the political level with the purpose of exploring potential solutions for the controversial topic of subsidized fisheries.

On stage it was clear that, though some member states were still unsure about the final agreement expected to be announced at the end of the conference, others were much more certain that time was of the essence and that an efficient solution was urgently needed.

“Should there be no Fisheries Agreement at the Eleventh WTO Ministerial Conference, we must find other platforms within the United Nations to continue the discussions on fisheries and ensure a solution is found by 2020,” said UNCTAD Secretary-General, Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi.

Depending on how the final negotiations shape up, some of UNCTAD’s member states have proposed the implementation of a WTO draft decision on “standstill commitment”, which would ensure that the global fisheries subsidies situation does not further deteriorate.

“The standstill commitment takes us backwards by a few years and yet we had made tremendous progress and have a goal to achieve by 2030. Urgent and diligent follow-up is necessary,” added Dr. Kituyi

WTO members have been discussing fisheries subsidies since 2001, as part of the Doha Round. In 2015 the issue took on a new sense of urgency with the adoption of the SDGs and Target 14.6, in particular.

The discussion in Buenos Aires today took all of this history into account when covering numerous aspects of fisheries subsidies in relation to the SDGs. Some of the highlights of the event included comments on the significance of fish and fish products to international trade, food security, nutrition, poverty reduction and development. Fish and seafood products are the most traded food commodity globally and one important employment generator in developing countries.

Regulatory Framework and Relevant International Instruments were also covered through key international instruments that underlie and contribute to a functional fisheries management system and the development of potential disciplines on fish subsidies. According to Mr. Berdegué Assistant Director General FAO, there is a significant set of FAO treaties and soft law that seeks to address, overfishing, overcapacity, and illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing activities that provide guidance of many aspects of responsible and sustainable fisheries.

Also taken into consideration were Trade Barriers with overview given of non-tariff measures faced by the fish sector in accessing international markets – which may include harmful fishing subsidies – and how they affect market access, particularly from developing countries.

One of the takeaways from the event was the fact that sustainable fisheries, especially in developing countries, depend on eliminating unjustifiable and unsustainable subsidies, which distort market prices, contribute to overfishing, overcapacity and generate unfair competition between industrial fleets and small scale, artisanal fishermen.

According to Ms. Okijamo, Deputy Secretary General of the Commonwealth, “small economies comprise the majority of our membership. They face formidable capacity constraints. These capacity constraints in reality mean that our members are far from the largest subsidizers. They also struggle to capture greater value within the fisheries sector”.

This was made even more clear when discussed in relation to Target 6 of SDG 14, which is one of the “early harvest” targets of the SDGs, meaning it is meant to be achieved by 2020, instead of 2030. A failure in compliance of the Goal might proceed to negatively influence the implementation of other SDGs, generating a domino effect.

It was noted that special and differential treatment must be an integral part of the negotiating outcome under SDG 14.6 and WTO mandates. However, such outcomes must not only look at levels of development but levels of fishing capacity as well. Such capacities are found to be uneven among developed and developing countries, and also amongst developing countries. For example, 15 of the 25 major wild marine producers are developing countries, with one country representing about one third of the total production.

Ms. Monica Maldonado from the Association of Tuna caning industries of Ecuador (CEIPA) mentioned that sustainability is not a trade barrier but an opportunity for competitiveness, stock conservation and social inclusion.

UNCTAD, UNEP and FAO have built-up momentum and provided guidance in the form of a joint statement, which deepened their partnership by offering a voluntary commitment to expand on trade-related aspects of SDG 14 between now and 2020 at the UN Ocean Conference.

Ultimately, Ministers at the event agreed that as some negotiating principles continue to struggle, others would focus their political will and complement efforts on the prohibition of fish subsidies to IUU fishing, improved transparency, studying the impact of subsidies on overfishing, unfair competition and access to stocks by small scale fishermen.