Remarks by DG Azevêdo

Thank you, Clarisse.

Peter Thomson, UN Special Envoy for the Oceans,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Global fish stocks are being depleted. This is a sad reality. According to the FAO 33% of global stocks are overfished, and most of the rest are at their limits. This should be of concern to us all.

More than 40 million people worldwide earn their living through fishing, and many poor communities have no other source of food and livelihood. What's more, fish make up 20% of the protein intake for 3.2 billion people. In fact, fish are the most globally traded food commodity.

So this is a key issue for both development and trade.

In addition to protecting our oceans, an agreement to curb fisheries subsidies would help ensure the viability of smaller enterprises and create better conditions for economic development in coastal regions. It would give these players fairer access to fisheries resources and would remove perverse economic incentives to fish beyond sustainable limits, which harms everyone.

There is an urgent need to ensure sustainable use of oceans resources for future generations.

No one questions the link between government subsidies and the depletion of global fish stocks. We have a situation where everyone is seeking a maximum share of a limited resource, with no one having an incentive to care for its long-term sustainability.

Through the Sustainable Development Goals, the global community sought to address the subsidy part of this problem. They did this by mandating the WTO to develop binding rules to prohibit certain forms of subsidies that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity, and to eliminate subsidies to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Existing WTO rules on subsidies focus on their trade-distorting effects. In contrast, these negotiations aim to tackle the negative effects of subsidization on grounds of sustainability.

Subsidies, and subsidies reform, are always complex and politically sensitive. In this instance, these difficulties and sensitivities are compounded by a number of factors – I'll highlight just three.

First is the fact that fisheries sustainability depends on fisheries biology and fisheries management, which are the domain of national fisheries authorities. And, at the international level, this is the domain of the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations and others, not the WTO. So, formulating WTO subsidy rules that reflect the role of these authorities and organizations, without stepping into their mandates, is challenging. Similarly, we shouldn't be asking the WTO to do something that it is not equipped to do.

A second factor is finding a formula that will provide adequate scope for developing members to support vulnerable fishing communities and grow their own fisheries sectors. The challenge is to balance the space to develop sustainably while also making a meaningful contribution to our collective efforts.

The third factor is enforceability.

Perhaps what sets the WTO apart from the other international organizations that also are pressing for fisheries subsidies reform is that our negotiating exercise is aimed at crafting legally binding subsidies disciplines. And these disciplines eventually would be enforceable through WTO dispute settlement.

So we are not just talking about yet another political statement or commitment, but rather rules that all WTO members would have to implement through domestic legislation, and for which they would be held legally accountable multilaterally.

And it is because of their binding nature that the rules will actually bring about the needed policy reforms. So negotiators are under intense pressure to get it right – they are taking great care over every word of proposed treaty text.

Implementation of the rules surely will pose challenges for all WTO members, and especially so for developing country members, and particularly LDCs.

For these members, reforming subsidies in accordance with the new rules will take time and effort. Certainly, technical assistance and capacity building are very likely to be a necessary part of the final package.

This session today is therefore extremely timely.

In particular, this is an important occasion to take stock of the fisheries assistance already being provided bilaterally and through international institutions, and to consider what else would be needed to help with implementation of the new rules.

The WTO report on development financing to the fisheries sector provides very important context in this regard.

According to the report, some USD 2.6 billion of such assistance has been disbursed since 2010.

Donor countries and agencies have been helping developing members to develop their fisheries sectors, as well as to design policies and implement best practices in sustainable fisheries management. These efforts are welcome and need to continue, especially in the framework of a new fisheries subsidies agreement.

Looking at the bigger picture, it also is clear that the fisheries subsidies negotiations represent a critically important test for our capacity to deliver on the multilateral track, as we have done in recent years. The cost of failure would be high, even systemically.

The deadline is already looming large, as trade ministers have pledged to strike a deal by the end of this year. I don’t think I need to remind you that it is already July.  

So the time to act is right now.

And let me be clear, this urgency is not just because of the deadline set by ministers. It is an urgency that is defined by the increasing risk to our natural resources.

The longer we wait, and keep extending our discussions, the further the resources of our oceans continue to decline. At some point the debate will simply become moot – there will be nothing left to save.

We must seize this moment. There is an opportunity here.

I am very encouraged to hear that the level of engagement in the negotiations has been increasing, and that new coalitions of members are reaching across their differences on some of the key issues and exploring possible common ground.

This is indispensable. It is the only way that negotiations will succeed.

Of course a new WTO agreement on fisheries subsidies by itself cannot address the whole spectrum of problems related to long-term fisheries sustainability. But we can make an important contribution. So let’s be ambitious with that contribution.

And let's use today's event as a springboard towards securing this deal that everybody wants to see.

Thank you.




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