WTO chief hails ‘important step’ towards elusive fishing deal

By , in Environment World on .

GENEVA, Nov 9 – The World Trade Organization chief said yesterday significant progress had been made towards a long-elusive agreement to end subsidies that reward over fishing, as negotiators scramble to clinch a deal within weeks.

“Time is short and I believe that this text reflects a very important step toward a final outcome,” said Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who took the reins of the global trade body in March.

Her comment came after Colombian ambassador Santiago Wills, who chairs the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations, presented a revised negotiating text following intense talks.

He said trade diplomats would begin poring over the latest version “clause by clause” today, in a bid to smooth out any wrinkles before ministers gather for a high-level meeting at the end of the month, at which they hope to clinch a deal.

For the past two decades, WTO member states have been discussing the need for a deal banning subsidies that contribute to illegal and unregulated fishing, as well as overfishing that threatens the sustainability of fish stocks.

While fishing should in theory be held in check by the environment, with low fish stocks pushing up costs, subsidies can keep unprofitable fleets at sea.

Global fisheries subsidies are estimated at between US$14 billion (RM58.1 billion) and US$54 billion a year, according to the WTO.

fishing

It is widely agreed that action is needed to protect a crucial resource that millions of people depend on for their livelihoods.

But more than 20 years of negotiations have stumbled over a range of issues, and members failed to meet the latest UN deadline to reach an agreement by December 2020.

World is watching

Momentum towards a deal has meanwhile been building. 

Okonjo-Iweala has made reaching a fisheries agreement by the end of this year a priority and is under increasing pressure to deliver.

“The eyes of the world are really on us,” she said yesterday.

Among the changes made to the latest text was a tentative broadening of the wording to include banning forced labor on fishing vessels, as proposed by Washington.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai argued before journalists in Geneva recently that forced labor belonged in the agreement because it not only has dire consequences for the livelihoods of workers, “but also operates as a subsidy, as an incentive to overfishing”.

But its inclusion remains controversial, and Wills said the addition was currently “in brackets”, meaning further negotiation was needed.

Other revisions to the text have to do with a UN demand that developing countries and the poorest nations receive so-called special and differential treatment, or SDT.

While special treatment for the poorest countries is widely accepted, demands from some self-identified developing countries to be exempt from subsidy constraints have proved difficult to swallow.

Many of the major fishing nations are considered developing countries by WTO, including China, which has one of the world’s biggest fishing fleets.

Wills said the latest version of the text “takes a big step” towards accommodating demands from the least developed and low-income developing countries seeking an exemption from the subsidy bans.

Those developing nations with a higher share of the global fish catch would meanwhile benefit from a transition period away from the exemption, although the duration of that period remained up for negotiation.

Okonjo-Iweala hailed the revised text, saying it showed “a significant rebalancing of the provisions, including those pertaining to special and differential treatment, while, at the same time, maintaining the level of ambition”.

NMT as reported by AFP

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