WTO wrangles final details of deal to protect global fish stocks

Santiago Wills, Colombia’s ambassador to the WTO and chair of the negotiations (right) with WTO director general Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at fisheries subsidies negotiations on Friday 20 May. (Credit: WTO)

With the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) 12th Ministerial Conference just weeks away, negotiators in Geneva are making another push to finalise a deal aimed at protecting the world’s dwindling fish stocks before ministers arrive.

Member state delegates gathered last week for a round of intensive talks aimed at resolving the last unfinished areas of the treaty to ban billions of dollars of harmful subsidies that contribute to overfishing.

Santiago Wills, Colombia’s ambassador to the WTO and chair of the negotiations, said the tone of the discussions was “positive and constructive” but more negotiations were needed, with the aim now to deliver a clean version of the text to ministers before they meet on 12 June.

“It is clear that to reach agreement before MC12, we must get this done no later than the week of 30 May. So I see the week of 30 May as ‘fish decision week,’” he told journalists on Friday.

Why environmentalists are counting on this deal

Reaching a deal on cutting global fishing subsidies worth over $35 billion annually is seen by environmentalists as one of the most crucial collective actions countries could take to reverse the world’s diminishing fish reserves.

Rashid Sumaila, a professor of ocean and fisheries economics at the University of British Columbia, has estimated that over $22bn of global subsidies are going towards building up fishing fleets, which in turn, contribute to overfishing.

“I think the current draft agreement if implemented as it would have a good effect on our ocean, fish stocks and fisheries,” he told Geneva Solutions.

“It would stop the damage to fish and fishers being inflicted by harmful fisheries subsidies, which by contributing to the depletion of fish stocks and because they are given mostly to large scale fisheries, undermines coastal communities worldwide, and aggravates many existing inequalities,” he said.

A deal would also have an important impact on the WTO and is seen as vital in helping to restore the battered-organisation’s credibility as a forum that can bring countries together to agree on key trade issues.

“The reason a deal is so important is not only the question of overfishing, but also it creates a pathway for dealing with some of these other issues that the WTO has to deal with, for example, agricultural subsidies,” Isabel Jarrett, manages Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to reduce harmful fisheries subsidies and who’ll be attending MC12, told Geneva Solutions.

“Likewise, if they want to have discussions about systemic reform of the WTO, one of those elements being special and differential treatment – well here's an example in this text of where we begin to see tailored special differential treatment.”

Sticking points

Talks over fisheries subsidies have dragged on for more than 20 years as countries have dug their heels in over challenging aspects of the proposed deal. Though the text is now the most advanced it has ever been, a few major sticking points remain.

One of them is deciding which developing countries will be exempt from banning certain subsidies that lead to overfishing. Member states are debating whether to set the limit at countries with less than 0.7 per cent, one per cent, or 1.2 per cent of the global marine catch.

Another issue still on the table is where to set the geographical limit for granting subsidies to artisanal fishers, with member states arguing distances ranging from 12 and 200 nautical miles.

Rules over fuel subsidies, territoriality, and “reflagging” where countries fish under the flag of another country, are also still being defined.

“It is clear that all members have made concessions to get us to a text that is relatively advanced in terms of convergence,” Will said, adding that there was more willingness by countries to shift their positions last week.  “Essentially everyone indicated a commitment to finish the negotiations by MC12.”

With just weeks to spare and negotiators still wrestling over the remaining points of contention in the text, some sceptics are worried that the opportunity to clinch a deal may once again slip out of reach.

However, Jarrett remains cautiously optimistic that a deal is possible. “There are trade-offs to be made among member states on different components of the text, and one of the key aspects of negotiating is, of course, not making those trade offs too soon.”

“I think if members need another week to continue discussing things, I take something positive away from that. They have a looming deadline… and they’ll need to get down to business.”