WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies!

Published on December 21, 2017

Trade treaties with teeth are in practice often a major hurdle to environmental protection measures. Trade hawks routinely claim that this need not be so. Sometimes they say that governments are unnecessarily cautious. Another stock reply is that the solution is international environmental rules, giving everyone a level playing field.

Easier said than done, as anyone who has ever worked on an international environmental agreement knows.

But miracles do happen. At the same time as EU fisheries ministers were struggling to find catch levels that would allow the EU to achieve its goals and international commitments of healthy fish stocks by 2020, the WTO ministerial conference met to agree to stop subsidising fishing overcapacity.

Overcapacity in the fishing fleet has long been acknowledged as a main driver behind overfishing and environmental destruction – negative impacts for both coastal communities and the sector itself. An example is the (voluntary) International Plan of Action for the Management of Fishing Capacity adopted by the FAO in 1999.

This was reiterated in the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg 2002. There, governments undertook in the Plan of Implementation to “eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and to over-capacity, while completing the efforts undertaken at the World Trade Organization to clarify and improve its disciplines on fisheries subsidies, taking into account the importance of this sector to developing countries”.

Last week, 15 years later, it was time to deliver. Fisheries has been a main focus for WTO negotiations this year. Alas, again, the miracle did not happen. According to press reports, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said that “the sad reality is that we did not even agree to stop subsidising illegal fishing”.

But not to despair – the WTO did agree on something. They set a new goal for a deal on fisheries subsidies: 2019.

While we wait, measures that trade true-believers frown on (such as restrictions on market access or traceability requirements) are looking more and more attractive.