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Fisheries Subsidies – Will the WTO Members Reach Agreement Before June 2020?

When WTO Members launched the Doha Development Agenda in November 2001, one of the topics to be explored was fisheries subsidies as outlined as part of the Rules paragraph 28:

“In the context of these negotiations, participants shall also aim to clarify and improve WTO disciplines on fisheries subsidies, taking into account
the importance of this sector to developing countries.” Ministerial Declaration, para. 28, WT/MIN(01)/Dec/1.

Fisheries subsidies were also mentioned in paragraph 31 of the Declaration dealing with topics within trade and environment that would be explored.

More than 18 years later, WTO members are pushing to reach agreement on new disciplines on fisheries subsidies by the time of the 12th Ministerial Conference to be held in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan in early June 2020.

The push is related to the 2020 deadline included in the September 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals (“SDG”) 14.6: “by 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing, and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiation.” The term “IUU” refers to “illegal, unreported, and unregulated” fishing.

At the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference, WTO members adopted a decision to complete fisheries subsidies negotiations by the next Ministerial Conference. See WT/MIN(17)/64; WT/L/1031:

“FISHERIES SUBSIDIES

“MINISTERIAL DECISION OF 13 DECEMBER 2017

“The Ministerial Conference

Decides as follows:

“1. Building on the progress made since the 10th Ministerial Conference as reflected in documents TN/RL/W/274/Rev.2, RD/TN/RL/29/Rev.3, Members agree to continue to engage constructively in the fisheries subsidies negotiations, with a view to adopting, by the Ministerial Conference in 2019, an agreement on comprehensive and effective disciplines that prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU-fishing recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing country Members and least developed country Members should be an integral part of these negotiations.

“2. Members re-commit to implementation of existing notification obligations under Article 25.3 of the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures thus strengthening transparency with respect to fisheries subsidies.”

Why the interest in fisheries subsidies?

For decades, the world has been experiencing overfishing of various species of fish in different parts of the world. The U.N.Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that between 1974 and 2015 fish stocks that are not within biologically sustainable levels increased from 10% in 1974 to 33.1% in 2015. FAO, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2018 (“2018 Report) at 6. This decline has occurred despite efforts made by various countries to regulate capture/production.

“Despite the continuous increase in the percentage of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels, progress has been made in some regions. For example, the proportion of stocks fished within biologically sustainable levels increased from 53 percent in 2005 to 74 percent in 2016 in the United States of America, and from 27 percent in 2004 to 69 percent in 2015 in Australia.” 2018 Report at 6.

Because of, inter alia, the importance of the fishing industry to many countries and fish to the diets of many peoples, there has been concern for many years with actions needed by nations to ensure the sustainability of fish captures.

The FAO’s 2018 Report provides a great deal of information on the importance of fish to developing and least developed countries and the various actions being taken to address meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”) pertaining to fish and the oceans.

The WTO’s negotiations on fisheries subsidies are just one part of the much larger group of SDGs being pursued by countries as part of the UN targets and only deals with ocean/sea wild caught fish, not with aquaculture and not with inland caught fish. The FAO’s 2018 Report is attached below.

2018-FAO-the-state-of-world-fisheries-and-aquaculture

As Table 1 in the 2018 Report shows, there has been a rapid growth in aquaculture so that by 2016, there was greater volume from aquaculture than there was from “marine caught”. Specifically, in 2016 aquaculture accounted fro 80.0 million metric tons (46.8%) of the total production/ capture, marine capture was 79.3 million metric tons (46.4%) and inland capture was 11.6 million metric tons (6.8%) – for a total of 170.9 million metric tons. Data do not include information on aquatic mammals, crocodiles, alligators, caimans, seaweeds and other aquatic plants. 2018 Report, Table 1, page 4.

While aquaculture has grown, marine capture has declined or stagnated over time and with growing levels of overfishing, longer term decline will occur in this sector absent concerted steps to manage the volume pursued at sea. Overfishing is believed due to overbuilding of fishing fleets and the level of fishing that contravenes national laws, is unrecorded and/or unregulated. Thus, the efforts within the WTO to impose disciplines on subsidies benefiting IUU fishing and/or contributing to overfishing are an important element in achieving catch rates that are sustainable versus unsustainable and declining.

Importance of marine fishing to developed, developing and least developed countries

The FAO gathers information on the amount of marine capture (as well as inland capture and aquaculture) annually. The latest data available from FAO are for 2017. FAO, Fishery and Aquaculture Statistical Yearbook 2017, http://www.fao.org/fishery/static/Yearbook/YB2017_USBcard/index.htm. The average marine caught volumes for the years 2015-2017 from the FAO data base were summarized for WTO Members in a July 11, 2019 submission to the WTO rules negotiations addressing fisheries subsidies. The submission was made by Argentina, Australia, the United States and Uruguay. Top marine caught Members are presented below in millions of metric tons and percent of world production:

CountryProduction (mm tonnes)% of World Production
China13.8 17.30%
Indonesia 6.2 7.76%
European Union 5.3 6.68%
United States 5.0 6.25%
Russian Federation 4.4 5.53%
Peru 4.2 5.31%
India 4.6 4.57%
Japan 3.2 4.06%
Vietnam 3.0 3.71%
Norway 2.2 2.80%
Chile 1.7 2.18%
Malaysia 1.5 1.90%
Republic of Korea 1.4 1.82%
Morocco 1.4 1.73%
Mexico 1.4 1.73%
Thailand 1,3 1.65%
Myanmar 1.2 1.49%
Iceland 1.2 1.48%
Chinese Taipei 0.8 1.04%
Canada 0.8 1.03%
Argentina 0.8 0.98%
Ecuador 0.7 0.84%
Bangladesh 0.6 0.78%
Mauritania 0.6 0.74%
South Africa 0.6 0.71%
Subtotal 68.8 86.36%
All Other 10.9 13.64%
World Total 79.7 100.00%

TN/RL/GEN/197/Rev.2, pages 4-7, Annex I (11 July 2019). Data for the EU and the US contain data from various islands referenced on page 4 in fotnotes a and b. The Annex lists 136 of the 164 WTO members and their production/volumes although no data are available for 28 WTO members (some of which are landlocked and hence may have no marine caught fish). The full listing is attached below.

TNRLGEN197R2

As reviewed in the 2018 Report (page 2), fish make up an increasing share of animal protein for humans, with 100% of the increase being accounted for by expanding aquaculture:

“The expansion in consumption has been driven not only by increased production, but also by other factors, including reduced wastage. In 2015, fish accounted for about 17 percent of animal protein consumed by the
global population. Moreover, fish provided about 3.2 billion people with almost 20 percent of their average per capita intake of animal protein. Despite their relatively low levels of fish consumption, people in developing countries have a higher share of fish protein in their diets than those in developed countries. The highest per capita fish consumption, over 50 kg, is found in several small island developing States (SIDS), particularly in Oceania, while the lowest levels, just above 2 kg, are in Central Asia and some landlocked countries.”

Fishing/fisheries are an important source of employment for many countries, with the vast majority of such employment being in countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Specifically in 2016 worldwide fisheries employment was estimated at 40.338 million people (no breakout between marine and inland caught). Of this number, 31.990 million were in Asia ((79.3%), 5.367 million were in Africa (13.3%) and 2.085 million were in Latin America and the Caribbean (5.2%) , with just 896,000 jobs in North America, Europe and Oceania. Several important individual countries are shown in the 2018 Report — China with 14.5 million jobs in fisheries in 2016 (36% of global) and Indonesia with 2.7 million folks employed in fisheries (6.7% of global employment in the sector). 2018 Report at 32-33. Much of the employment in fisheries around the world is from family run operations, often subsistence in nature, and mainly using small boats (less than 12 meters in length and a large portion of which are not motorized).

The 2018 Report indicates that in 2016 the number of fishing vessels in the world were 4.6 million, 2.8 million of which were motorized. Of the 4.6 million vessels, 75.4% were in Asia, 14.0% in Africa, 6.4% in Latin America and the Caribbean, 2.1% in Europe, 1.8% in North America and 0.3% in Oceania. 100% of Europe’s vessels were motorized, more than 90% of those in North America, but only some 25% in Africa. See pages 36-38 of the 2018 Report.

WTO Efforts at Increasing Disciplines on Marine Fisheries Subsidies

Negotiations at the WTO have had periods of greater activity since 2001 than in other periods. 2005-2011 was a particularly active period according to the WTO webpage, with an uptick in efforts beginning in late 2016 and continuing to the present time. See https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/rulesneg_e/fish_e/fish_intro.htm.

The negotiations have been complicated by many issues that are not typical for trade negotiations. Here are a few of the perceived problem issues:

(a) problem being addressed relates to depletion of scarce global resources through overfishing flowing from subsidies that create excess capacity;

(b) production occurs not only in national waters but in the open seas and through contracts to capture fish in third countries’ waters;

(c) concerns about effect of negotiations on outstanding territorial disputes/claims;

(d) the challenge of disciplining subsidies provided by one country on fishing vessels which are flagged in a different country;

(e) the lack of meaningful data from many developing and least developed countries which complicates understanding the level of marine capture;

(f) for many developing and least developed countries, the large part of fishing fleets which are subsistence or artisanal in nature;

(g) the large portion of global capture which is developing and least developed country in origin vs. desire for special and differential treatment for such countries;

(h) challenge of whether traditional S&D provisions (exclusion from disciplines, lesser reductions, longer implementation periods) are actually harmful to developing and least developed countries where continued erosion of marine catch from overfishing will actually hurt the fishermen and fisherwomen of the countries receiving S&D consideration;

(i) whether dispute settlement as applicable to other WTO agreements (whether SCMA or other) will serve the underlying objectives of any negotiated agreement or needs to be modified to reflect the unique objectives of the agreement.

On the question of level of subsidization, there are the usual questions of what, if any, subsidies will be allowed as not causing concerns re growing capacity or overfishing and whether there is some level of acceptable subsidies even if adding to capacity.

While the set of public documents from the negotiations are reasonable through much of 2018, the resort to Room Documents (which are not made public) and other classification of documents, means that much of the current drafts of sections of a possible agreement are not publicly available. For example, there were ten documents identified as made available to WTO Members for the May 8, 2019 Informal Open-ended Negotiating Group on Rules (Fisheries Subsidies). Seven of the ten documents are not available to the public as “Room Documents” even if the documents were generated weeks or months before the meeting. See, e.g., RD/TN/RL/72 (17/12/2018); RD/TN/RL/81 (21/03/2019); RD/TN/RL/77/Rev.1 (21/03/2019); RD/TN/RL/82 (08/04/2019); RD/TN/RL/79/Rev.1 (18/04/2019); RD/TN/RL/83 (02/05/2019); RD/TN/RL/84 (06/05/2019).

Similarly, WTO Members have done a relatively poor job of notifying the subsidies provided to marine fisheries. Even with improvements in notifications in 2019, as late as November 2019, nine of the 26 largest providers of fisheries subsidies had not provided notifications and some who had done so in 2019 submitted the first notifications of such programs in 20 years. Members welcome progress in notification of fisheries subsidies, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news19_e/scm_19nov19_e.htm.

There is a draft document from the Chair of the negotiations from 14 November 2018, TN/RL/W/274/Rev.6 which lays out the Chair’s understanding of negotiations as of that date. The document is attached below and is heavily bracketed meaning that at the time of the draft there was not agreement on the bracketed text or options were shown.

TNRLW274R6

Some public submissions show that countries or groups of countries are still putting forward approaches on topics of importance. For example there are 2019 submissions on the following topics: fishing vessels not flying the member’s flag (e.g., TN/RL/GEN/201/Rev.1 (proposed prohibiting subsidies to such vessels)(Argentina, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, the United States, and Uruguay), on a cap-based approach to addressing certain fisheries subsidies [(TN/RL/GEN/197/Rev.2) and TN/RL/GEN/203)(Argentina, Australia, the United States, and Uruguay) vs. different approach put forward by China (TN/RL/199)], on whether different dispute settlement principles need to be considered (TN/RL/GEN/198, Canadian discussion paper), the breadth of special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries (TN/RL/200, submission from India).

Interestingly, a submission from New Zealand and Iceland in 2018 warned other WTO members that a focus on fishing in international waters vs. marine catch in national waters would result in any agreement addressing very little of the marine catch volume as would other overly narrow scope approaches:

‘6.SDG Target 14.6 is clear that subsidies that contribute to both overcapacity and overfishing must be prohibited. An outcome which excluded the most harmful types of subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing would therefore not satisfy SDG Target 14.6. An outcome that addressed capacity or overfishing in just a hortatory way or in a manner that applied disciplines only to a small subset of subsidies or the world’s fishing fleet would similarly fail to meet the requirements of SDG Target 14.6.

“7. For example, the current emphasis on subsidies to fishing beyond national jurisdiction is warranted given the weaker governance and resource and development impacts of such fishing. This however must not be at the exclusion of waters under national jurisdiction where the vast majority of global catch – 88% – is taken.1 Similarly, the emphasis on overfished stocks should not equate to an exception for other stocks as doing so would exclude nearly 70% of the world’s fisheries.2 Taken together, these two approaches alone would result in barely 8% of the world’s fisheries being subject to subsidy prohibitions.3
“2 FAO. 2016. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016.
“3 Two thirds of fish stocks managed by RFMOs are overfished or depleted: Cullis-Suzuki, S. & Pauly, D. (2010). Failing the high seas: a global evaluation of regional fisheries management organization. Marine Policy 34: 1036–1042.”

Advancing Fisheries Subsidies Prohibitions on Subsidies Contributing to Overcapacity and Overfishing, TN/RL/W/275 at 2 (8 May 2018)(New Zealand and Iceland).

Will WTO Members Deliver Meaningful Fisheries Subsidies Reform

The fact that the negotiations have taken more tan 18 years and that major countries appear to remain widely apart on many key issues suggests that the road to success will be challenging.

For example, India’s proposal for S&D would result in large amounts of fisheries subsidies not being addressed by the agreement (whatever the scope of subsidies addressed) rendering any agreement of minimal assistance in fact if adopted following that approach.

There are significant differences in approaches to limiting subsidies as can be seen in the different cap approaches presented by China and a group of other countries (Argentina, Australia, the United States and Uruguay).

Similarly, there is a disconnect between the problems being addressed (overcapacity and overfishing) and the traditional role of S&D to eliminate, reduce and/or delay obligations. For the fisheries subsidies negotiations to achieve a meaningful result, the WTO Members need to revisit what the role of special and differential needs to be to achieve better marine catch for developing and least developed countries. The focus needs to be on helping LDCs and developing countries develop accurate data on marine catch, developing the capacity to participate in regional management programs, finding assistance to fishermen and fisherwomen affected by depleted marine catches to survive/choose alternative work until such time as sustainable levels of wild caught fish are again available. But all countries need to contribute to limiting fisheries subsidies where excess capacity or overfishing are the likely result.

And there is the U.S. position that S&D will only be approved in any new agreement if it is limited to those countries with an actual need (i.e., certain countries would not take such benefits). Considering the role of major countries like China and India in marine catch, one can expect challenges in having those countries (and possibly others) agree to forego S&D provisions.

Net/net – as most Members seem to be focused on the wrong questions, there is a reasonable probability that the Kazakhstan Ministerial will not see a meaningful set of disciplines adopted on fisheries subsidies to address the challenges to marine catch from overcapacity and overfishing.

Let’s hope that the above forecast proves wrong.