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Fisheries subsidies: Suggestions for improvements of WTO debate

21 July 2014

According to a recent article by ICTSD Director Rashid Sumaila, a key reason for the lack of progress in the fisheries subsidies negotiations at the WTO level, after 7 years of trying, is that the negotiations suffer from “lumpiness”, meaning that negotiators aim for an all-inclusive deal, or none at all.

This lumpiness takes two forms. First, the WTO negotiations are conducted as a “single undertaking”, that is, results must be achieved in all areas of the negotiations – not only in those regarding fisheries subsidies – and must be applicable to all member countries. Any potential breakthroughs in the negotiations on fisheries subsidies are dependent on similar breakthroughs in the Doha Development Agenda. The second area of lumpiness relates to the goal for negotiators to arrive at an all-inclusive deal.

Dr Sumaila suggests a new approach to the challenge of disciplining fisheries subsidies: the starting point is to split the world’s fisheries into:

  1. domestic – i.e. fisheries that operate within country’s exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and target fish stocks that spend all their lives within the EEZs; and
  2. international fisheries, made up of fish stocks that do not qualify as domestic fisheries.

He justifies this necessary split to help move WTO negotiations forward because:

      Incentives for countries differ significantly, depending on whether a fishery is domestic or international (migratory).

      The institutional framework is different for domestic fisheries, whereas a coordinated international framework is needed for highly migratory international fish stocks because unilateral action by one country is unlikely to eliminate the problem of overfishing.

      By dividing fisheries into these groups, it would be easier to identify the leverage points for eliminating harmful subsidies.

Another ICTSD article further observes that negotiators have “an explicit environmental mandate”, which is “to contribute in a concrete way to ensuring the sustainability of the oceans’ fisheries”. Fulfilling that mandate would require negotiators to make concessions to the “common environmental good”.

Editorial comment

Although the international community is sending increasingly strong signals to stop subsidies that fuel fishing over-capacity – as they did at Rio+20 in 2013 – it is noticeable that the actual WTO negotiations on subsidies have stalled for several years. The “lumpiness” evoked here is certainly a major contributor to the lack of progress. The proposed solution to split the world’s fisheries into domestic and international fisheries (thus facilitating a start to addressing international fisheries subsidies) would request that most efforts at subsidy disciplines initially come from distant water fishing nations. These nations are most active in international fisheries, such as tuna fisheries, and are also responsible for the lion’s share of global fishing subsidies. In the case of the EU, industrial tuna fleets active in international waters and ACP EEZs have been among the biggest recipients of fishing subsidies in the last decades. The difficulty with this approach is that, in many fishing countries, fisheries subsidy programmes cover the whole sector, and do not differentiate between international and domestic fisheries. Applying this new “differentiated” approach may encounter concrete difficulties.


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