WTO fish talks gain political momentum but a deal remains elusive

WTO director general Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala with Amb. Santiago Wills, chair of the fisheries subsidies negotiations, at the WTO headquarters in Geneva on Thursday 15 July, 2020. Photos: WTO/Bryan Lehmann

The WTO said a crucial ministerial meeting aimed at banning harmful fishing subsidies had paved the way towards forging an agreement later this year, but major differences still remain.

The head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) declared a meeting of trade ministers on Thursday “a success”, saying that talks had been given the political clout needed to clinch a long-awaited deal to stop overfishing, even as some countries voiced concerns over the draft agreement.

Speaking to reporters after a day-long virtual conference in Geneva, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said that after more than 20 years, member states were finally ready to move ahead with text-based negotiations aimed at finalising an agreement to curb harmful fishing subsidies – a key driver of dwindling fish stocks around the world.

“We couldn’t have wished for a better outcome”, she said. “The prospect for a deal in the autumn ahead of our Ministerial Conference has clearly improved."

Credit: WTO/Bryan Lehmann

Ingredients for success - but at what price?

More than 100 trade ministers and delegates attended the meeting yesterday in what the WTO said was the first – and biggest – gathering of ministers since its 11th ministerial conference in Buenos Aires in 2017.

Okonjo-Iweala said the record turnout “showed the commitment in getting the fisheries subsidies negotiation moving and concluded”, joking that not even as many delegations had participated in her nomination meeting earlier this year.

The talks, which have been stretched out for 22 years, aim to stop around $22bn of the $35bn in government subsidies each year that are estimated to contribute to illegal and unregulated fishing, as well as overfishing and overcapacity. The goal also forms part of the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, adopted by countries in 2015.

More than a third of the world’s stocks are being fished at a rate that cannot be replenished, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Environmentalists say that cutting subsidies is the single biggest action that nations can take to help restore the ocean’s health, while also safeguarding a vital source of livelihood and nutrition.

Pressure on the WTO to strike a deal has escalated after members missed a key deadline at the end of December, with negotiations also seen as a litmus test as to whether the embattled organisation, which is facing challenges on many fronts, can deliver on a multilateral agreement.

Read also: Time to end fisheries subsidies ‘madness’, urges UN special envoy

Ambassador Santiago Wills, chair of the talks, said: “I believe the answers [yesterday] have given us the ingredients to reach a successful conclusion.”

However, not all member states shared the same optimism, with many quick to voice their reservations over the latest version of the text, in particular over the thorny issue of how to extend special and differential treatment (SDT) to developing and least developed countries.

India has been one of the most vocal member states, stressing that exemptions should not be limited to poor and artisanal fishermen only, arguing that doing so would disadvantage developing countries like India still building up their fishing industries.

“Clearly, it will lead to capacity constraints for developing countries, while advanced nations will continue to grant subsidies,” said India’s trade minister Piyush Goyal. “This is unequal, unfair, unjust!!”

Another delegate from a developing nation who did not wish to be named told Geneva Solutions that they were still “very pessimistic” with regards to reaching an agreement due to the entrenched positions of certain members, making reference to India’s remarks.

The United States also voiced its concerns over the latest draft text of the deal. “Although it does include some of the basic elements needed to reach a meaningful conclusion, our work is not yet done, as other key elements are still missing,” trade representative Katherine Tai said in her remarks.

The US wants the issue of forced labour, or slavery, included in negotiations and for member states to notify the WTO when they suspect vessels to be engaging in these practices. The proposal was only put forward in May after several versions of the text had already been drawn up, further complicating negotiations.

Thai also objected to permanent exceptions on special and differential treatment (SFT) being granted to some countries. She said talks “should not result in an outcome that locks in the status quo or, worse, provides the WTO’s blessing to continue providing such subsidies - without regard to sustainability - in perpetuity”.

Addressing delegates earlier in the day, the UK’s minister of state for trade policy Greg Hands, said it recognises the importance of the fisheries sector to the economic development of certain developing countries and LDCs. “However it cannot be right that big players in the fisheries space benefit”.

Many WTO member states defined as developing countries are also the world’s biggest shipping nations and providers of subsidies. China is the biggest subsidiser, accounting for about a fifth of annual government handouts to the fishing sector.

Earlier in the week, an EU official told reporters that a statement from China that it would be prepared to assume “full commitment without claiming SDT” would help advance the talks.

A WTO spokesperson told reporters that China had told member states it “will take on obligations commensurate with their level of development”.

Trade ministers participated virtually in the ministerial meeting while some of their Geneva mission heads attended in person at the WTO headquarters. (Photos: WTO/Bryan Lehmann)

However, there were also positive comments on the progress made to date with the EU’s executive vice president Valids Dombrovskis saying it believes “the current text can be the basis for an agreement.”

Barbados Ambassador to the UN and WTO, Chad Blackman, told Geneva Solutions that he was “quietly optimistic”, and Okonjo-Iweala “had worked hard in advancing talks".

What’s next for fish talks?

With the exceptional meeting of trade ministers now over, a new lap in the race has begun to finalise the agreement and remove the 84-odd square brackets – the areas that are still disputed in the text – before the 12th Ministerial Conference in December.

Amb. Wills said that the trade body will now move forward with text-based discussions, with a first meeting of the trade and negotiations committee next Friday.

With the Covid-19 pandemic still raging and uncertainty over the outlook for the rest of the year, there are worries that the conference will be pushed online, in what could further hinder ministers’ abilities to conclude a deal.

Okonjo-Iweala said that delegations “needed to prepare for an intensive period of line by line negotiations”.

“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 subsidise – or artisanal fishing communities to support.”

Reacting to yesterday’s meeting, Isabel Jarrett, manager of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ project to end harmful fisheries subsidies, said WTO members fell short of striking a deal at today’s ministerial meeting. “However, countries demonstrated their commitment to reaching an agreement this year that prioritises sustainability and increases transparency.”

“The final text of the agreement must ensure that governments are not allowed to subsidise irresponsible practices that will hurt those fish populations that have not truly reached biologically sustainable levels. Harmful subsidies applied to the fishing of those vulnerable populations could jeopardize their chances of rebounding.”