WTO fisheries subsidies talks edge closer towards ministerial conference

Ambassador Santiago Wills, chair of the World Trade Organization (WTO) fisheries subsidies negotiations with director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, at a July meeting that marked the start of the final sprint to finalise a deal ahead of the ministerial conference at the end of November. (Photos: WTO/Bryan Lehmann)

The World Trade Organization (WTO) on Monday released the latest draft of a long-awaited treaty to stop overfishing, and expressed cautious optimism about being able to finalise most parts of the deal in time for the 12th ministerial conference at the end of the month.

Talks to end some $22 billion dollars in government subsidies that contribute to excessive and illegal fishing have been ongoing at the WTO for more than 20 years, with pressure mounting on the organisation to show that it can deliver.

"The eyes of the world are really on us," WTO director general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said at a meeting of delegates negotiating the rules of the treaty on Monday.

"Time is short and I believe that this text reflects a very important step toward a final outcome,” she added.

The latest version of the text includes changes based on intense discussions between member states since the ministerial fisheries subsidies meeting in July and represents the closest negotiators have come to reaching a finalised text.

One of the biggest amendments is on special and differential treatment, including a provision for least developed country members to be granted an exemption from the prohibition of subsidies that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity.

However, a number of unfinished areas in the draft still need to be ironed out before presenting the draft treaty to ministers on 30 November when the conference is set to start in Geneva.

“The work is not done yet – we still have some distance to cover,” ambassador Santiago Wills, chair of the talks, told journalists on Monday. “But...I genuinely believe that we can deliver a balanced and meaningful outcome on fisheries subsidies by MC12.”

Last month, around 300 scientists joined NGOs in urging World Trade Organization members to reach an agreement this year on curbing fisheries subsidies, which is seen as the biggest action the world can take to stop the rapid depletion of the world’s fish stocks and to protect the ocean.

According to Pew Charitable Trusts, a deal removing all harmful subsidies would boost the number, or biomass, of the world’s fish by 12.5 per cent by 2050, or about 35 million metric tonnes of fish.

WTO delegates will begin “a clause-by-clause discussion” of the entire fisheries text on Tuesday, Ambassador Wills said, with the aim being to present ministers with a completely clean text, or at least as clean as possible with only one or two issues left to decide.

"As the latest draft demonstrates, members are narrowing options down, meaning getting a nearly-clean text ahead of the Ministerial is perfectly possible,” Isabel Jarrett, manager of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ programme to end harmful fisheries subsidies, said.

“We're pleased to see that some strong elements of the text remain..The sustainability requirement for special and differential treatment demonstrates members' commitment to delivering on the mandate of Sustainable Development Goal 14 Target 6. However, we'd prefer an outright prohibition on subsidies to distant-water fishing, rather than it being subject to the sustainability requirement.”