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WTO talks over fisheries subsidies enter troubled waters

Major talks underway at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to end harmful fishing subsidies hit a roadblock last week after countries clashed over “special and differential treatments” for developing countries. 

Why we are talking about it. Member states have been in talks back and forth for nearly two decades on a new deal to end billions of dollars in harmful fisheries subsidies, one of the main drivers of massive overfishing. Countries are now rushing to meet the end of December deadline to come up with a new agreement after missing last year’s deadline.

Why it matters. The ocean is being fished beyond sustainable limits, with more than a third of the world’s stocks being fished at a rate that cannot be replenished, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Despite this, many governments provide grants to their fishing sector, for example to help cover the costs for fuel or buying new vessels. And while some subsidies are beneficial, a large part is incentivising more fishing than the ocean can handle, as well as illegal fishing activities.  Subsidies are estimated to be as high as $35bn worldwide, of which $20bn directly contributes to overfishing.

It also leads to unfair competition between large fleets and individual artisanal fishermen, and affecting the livelihoods of millions of fishermen in some of the world’s poorest and least developing countries.

Who’s in charge of WTO talks. The chair of the negotiating group on fisheries subsidies is ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, who was appointed in December last year.

What’s happened so far. Discussions kicked off again on 2 November and were making progress until member states took very different positions over special and differential treatment (S&DT) for developing and least-developed countries.

Ambassador Didier Chambovey of Switzerland, who is leading the consultations on the provisions, updated members on meetings he had been having with delegations. According to officials with access to the talks, Chambovey said countries voiced views at different ends on the spectrum on whether provisions should focus on transition periods or carve-outs based on scale, geographical limits and socio-economic thresholds.

Talks with WTO heads of delegation will continue this week. Here are some of the other points discussed since 2 November:

Remedies. At an earlier meeting on 4 November, countries also discussed what actions should be taken if a future fisheries subsidy agreement is violated and what retaliatory measures, if any, should be allowed. Most countries seemed to agree that the clear remedy should be the withdrawal of the banned subsidy, which is already the case under existing WTO rules.  A Geneva-based trade official said that while some members like the European Union wanted to go further, others argued it would be difficult to estimate the damage to a fish stock and calculating the proportional remedy.

Countermeasures. These are used to retaliate against a member state that refuses to withdraw a prohibited subsidy.  Several countries - Australia, Brazil, Chinese Taipei, EU, Japan and UK to name a few - were in favour of such measures, saying these could be useful to enforce the agreement. However, the ACP Group (African, Caribbean and Pacific countries), the African Group, and Sri Lanka were among those that opposed the use of countermeasures.

New tasks for the dispute settlement body.  Ongoing talks will also determine how to put the WTO's dispute settlement mechanism to use on issues relating to environmental sustainability. Countries debated how much power the dispute settlement panel should be given, with many against a panel that would decide whether illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing has occurred or scrutinise a member's fish stock assessment.