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WTO kicks off next round of fisheries talks as pressure mounts over long-awaited deal

World Trade Organization (WTO) Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, right, gestures with Chair of the fisheries subsidies negotiations at the WTO Colombian Ambassador Santiago Wills next to an ice sculpture depicting fish during a event by NGOs requesting urgent action to finalize the WTO agreement on ending subsidies that drive overfishing, Monday, 1 March, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland. (Keystone/AFP POOL/Fabrice Coffrini)

The World Trade Organization (WTO) will this week launch a new round of negotiations on curbing harmful fisheries subsidies, amid hopes that a change in leadership at the top of the organisation will help inject a new sense of urgency into efforts to finalise the long-awaited deal. 

In December, the global trade watchdog missed the 2020 year-end deadline for coming up with an agreement to end billions of dollars in government subsidies that contribute to excessive and illegal fishing.

A deal has evaded negotiators since discussions first began 20 years ago at the WTO’s fourth Ministerial Conference in Doha, and has been a source of frustration not only for environmentalists but also supporters of the organisation, who would like to see confidence in its ability to strike multilateral trade deals restored.

Addressing the WTO General Council on her first day in office on 1 March, director general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala called on members to “do things differently” to achieve the reforms needed to keep the WTO relevant, starting with action on the fisheries subsidies.

MC12, the WTO’s major ministerial conference which has been postponed from June until the end of November due to the pandemic, is seen as a key milestone for delivering on those priorities.

However, in her speech, Okonjo-Iweala went further and pressed countries to complete fisheries subsidies negotiations “before the middle of the year”.

What to expect this week. This week’s talks mark the third so-called “cluster” of meetings to take place since negotiations resumed this year.

Despite the frustration at not meeting last year’s deadline, negotiators and environmentalists have cited progress made over the last year, with delegates now working off a single draft consolidated text put forward by Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, the negotiating group’s chair.

“Before this, we were working on a kind of unwieldy consolidation of everyone's proposals, so now we actually have a structure of what the agreement could look like in front of us,” a person close to the talks told Geneva Solutions.

Over the last few months, delegates have been using the meeting clusters to work through thorny issues in the text where member states have yet to agree - one being special and differential treatment for developing countries and least developed countries.

A “make or break” part of those negotiations is Article 5, which concerns capacity enhancing subsidies, for example for fuel or boat construction, or development programmes, which enable fisheries to increase their capacity and catch more fish. These in turn can contribute to unsustainable fishing practices over the long-term.

Of the $35.4bn in global fisheries subsidies paid out in 2018, $22bn were capacity-enhancing subsidies. These payments are largely made to owners of large, industrial vessels, with a recent study showing that the amount going to large-scale fisheries as capacity-enhancing subsidies ($18.3bn), accounts for more than half (52 per cent) of all fisheries subsidies.

China, the European Union, the United States, the Republic of Korea and Japan, are the biggest subsidisers, contributing a combined 58 per cent to overall subsidies.

“At the moment, the two main tensions are around what special differential treatment developing countries might receive for this discipline, and also what potential flexibilities might developed countries who have really strong management measures in place recieve in this regard,” The Pew Charitable Trust’s Isabel Jarrett told Geneva Solutions. Jarrett manages Pew’s campaign to reduce harmful fisheries subsidies.

“Of course this permits those members that have these management structures, which are more often than not developed countries, or some large fishing nations, to continue to provide those subsidies”, she added.

This is understood to be one of the main issues on the agenda for this week’s talks, alongside a proposal by Argentina, Chile and Ecuador to allow governments to continue to grant subsidies to artisanal fisheries based on how far out to sea they are fishing.

What’s at stake. Observers say a mid-year target reaching a final version of the text is “ambitious” but crucial to save the world’s already overexploited fish stocks. 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.

Overfishing is particularly bad in parts of the developing world where many people are already struggling to get nutritious food to eat. Pew estimates that a deal removing all harmful subsidies could 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.

“That’s equivalent to nearly, nearly three times the annual consumption of fish in Africa right now. So that's really telling you how impactful an agreement can be,” Jarrett said.

She cautioned, however, that a deal would not be achieved by talks in Geneva alone. “There's only so much that can be done at the technical level in Geneva and what's really going to help us get into decision-making mode, shift gears and fast track towards an agreement is getting ministers involved.”

“We need to have ministers from across the board, from developed to developing countries, from proponents to countries that are more skeptical of an agreement. That's we need to really change the tone of discussions.”

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