World Trade Organisation (WTO) members edge closer to an agreement that would set new rules for the global fisheries industry and limit government subsidies contributing to unsustainable fishing and the depletion of global fish stocks.
During an all-day meeting with 104 ministers and heads of the delegation last week, WTO members pledged to conclude the negotiations soon and certainly before the WTO’s Ministerial Conference in early December and to empower their Geneva-based delegations to do so.
Members also confirmed that the negotiating text currently before them can be used as the basis for the talks to strike the final deal.
Speaking at the meeting, the WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said “I feel new hope this evening (15 July). Because ministers and heads of delegation today demonstrated a strong commitment to moving forward and doing the hard work needed to get these negotiations to the finish line. I applaud you for this. In 20 years of negotiations, this is the closest we have ever come towards reaching an outcome — a high-quality outcome that would contribute to building a sustainable blue economy.
“One fundamental conclusion that I draw from your interventions today is that members are ready to use the text as the basis for future negotiations. A second takeaway from today was that there is universal agreement about the importance of the food and livelihood security of artisanal fishers in developing and least developed countries. The prospect for a deal in the autumn ahead of our Ministerial Conference has clearly improved.”
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one-third of global fish stocks are overfished and most of the rest is fully exploited. This is up from 10% in 1970 and 27% in 2000. Depleted stocks threaten the food security of low-income coastal communities and the livelihoods of poor and vulnerable fishers who must go further and further from shore only to bring back smaller and smaller hauls.
Each year, governments hand out around $35 billion in fisheries subsidies, two-thirds of which go to commercial fishers. These subsidies keep at sea vessels that would otherwise be economically unviable. World leaders in 2015 made a fisheries subsidies agreement by 2020 part of the Sustainable Development Goals and trade ministers reaffirmed this pledge in 2017.
The negotiations on fisheries subsidies disciplines have been ongoing for nearly 20 years. Although there has been recent progress thanks to the intensive work that led to the development of the negotiating text on which members are working, the lack of political impetus in the talks to close the remaining gaps inspired Director-General Okonjo-Iweala to call this meeting of ministers.
Among the thorniest issues to resolve has been how to extend special and differential treatment to developing and least-developed country WTO members while preserving the overall objective of enhanced sustainability of the oceans. Ministers said that the livelihoods and food security of poor and vulnerable artisanal fishers in developing and least developed countries were of great importance, as was preserving the sustainability objective of the negotiations.
Amb. Santiago Wills of Colombia, who chaired the Rules Negotiating Group overseeing the fisheries subsidies negotiations, said he had received some valuable inputs from the discussions. He now has greater clarity on the path forward and the next steps that would be required to harvest an agreement. He will be consulting with the Director-General and WTO members about charting the path forward for the next stage of the talks.
“I am very heartened by the responses and messages that we have heard today. What we sought from ministers today was political guidance to help close these negotiations soon. And we did hear that guidance. We have been given the ingredients to reach a successful conclusion; a commitment to finish well ahead of our Ministerial Conference a text that can be the platform for this final stage of the negotiations and fully empowered heads of delegations in Geneva. This represents a real success,” said Amb. Wills.
The Director-General said that delegations needed to prepare for an intensive period of line-by-line negotiations.
“As we enter this new phase of text-based discussions, the responsibility to conclude these negotiations is truly in the hands of members. To get from here to an agreement, it will be your job to find the necessary trade-offs and flexibilities. A successful outcome by MC12 is ultimately your responsibility.
“The world is watching. The fisheries subsidies negotiations are a test both of the WTO’s credibility as a multilateral negotiating forum and of the trading system’s ability to respond to problems of the global commons. If we wait another 20 years, there may be no marine fisheries left to subsidize — or artisanal fishing communities to support,” said she.