Mc11 in brief

Negotiations on fisheries subsidies

WTO members are negotiating to limit harmful fisheries subsidies and deliberating on what agreement can be reached by the 11th Ministerial Conference (MC11) this December in Buenos Aires.

The creation of fisheries subsidies disciplines has been the subject of work in the WTO's Negotiating Group on Rules since the Doha Development Agenda was launched in 2001, with an elaboration of the negotiating mandate in 2005. The adoption by world leaders in September 2015 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has given a renewed sense of urgency to the talks.

SDG target 14.6 sets a deadline of 2020 for eliminating subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and for prohibiting certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, with special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries as an integral part of the WTO's negotiations.

At the 2015 WTO Ministerial Conference in Nairobi, fisheries subsidies, as part of "rules", was among the topics on which all WTO members declared their strong commitment to advance negotiations.  

Since then, WTO members in the negotiating group have been discussing proposals and exchanging views on what sort of agreement on fisheries subsidies disciplines could be possible for MC11.

A "compilation text" of seven proposals was circulated on 12 October 2017. The members behind these proposals worked together to combine their separate texts into this single compilation" document. The members behind the seven proposals are: (1) New Zealand, Iceland and Pakistan; (2) the European Union; (3) Indonesia; (4) the African, Caribbean Pacific (ACP) Group; (5) Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay; (6) the Least-developed Countries (LDC) Group; and (7) Norway.

Since then, a number of members have suggested further amendments to the compilation text, including China, Japan, India, the United States, and others in respect of areas such as subsidies contributing to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, transparency, and institutional issues. China has circulated its IUU proposal publicly, and the US proposal on transparency on fisheries subsidies mirrors the corresponding section of a broader proposal on transparency submitted to the Council for Trade in Goods.

As of early November, the compilation text and members' discussions covered the following issues:

  • The scope of a possible agreement – This refers to what types of subsidies should be covered by the agreement, for which sorts of fisheries activities, and in which waters. For example, there are questions of whether the scope should be limited to "marine wild capture fisheries," whether the scope should be limited to activities at sea, and whether to exclude certain non-harmful or beneficial subsidies.
  • Subsidy prohibitions – This includes whether and how to tackle subsidies contributing to IUU fishing, to overfishing, to overcapacity, and affecting overfished stocks. In this regard, proposals vary as to how to determine the existence of IUU fishing, overfished stocks, overfishing, and overcapacity, who would make such determinations, and for which waters.
  • Transparency – This refers to the question of what, if any, information about fisheries subsidies, beyond what is already required under the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (SCM), members should be obliged to notify to the WTO; and whether any such new information should focus on implementation of new disciplines, or also include information related to the fisheries in question.
  • Standstill – One group of members proposes an obligation to refrain from introducing new, or extending existing, non-prohibited subsidies contributing to overfishing or overcapacity.
  • Special and differential treatment for developing and least developed country (LDC) members – The issue here is whether, and for which disciplines, exemptions, transitional periods and implementation assistance should be made available to these members. Many members have observed that the final shape of such provisions would emerge once there is more clarity on the scope and nature of the subsidy prohibitions.
  • Institutional arrangements – This includes questions on the role of the SCM Committee in monitoring the implementation of new disciplines, the possible implications of new disciplines on maritime disputes, and rules concerning dispute settlement.

By end-November, members shifted their focus to drafting a ministerial decision on fisheries subsidies for MC11. After several meetings of the negotiating group and the Heads of Delegations, members agreed on 6 December to forward this draft text of a Ministerial Decision on Fisheries Subsidies to the Ministerial Conference for consideration.

The draft contains, among others, options for proposed interim commitments on subsidies contributing to IUU fishing, a placeholder for an interim commitment relating to overfished stocks, and proposed interim commitments on standstill and transparency, as well as a proposed interim review process. The draft also includes a proposed commitment for future work that would build on progress as reflected in previously circulated compilation texts and continue negotiations with a view to adopting a comprehensive agreement by the Ministerial Conference in 2019.

According to the Chair of the negotiating group, Ambassador Wayne McCook (Jamaica), the draft reflects members' efforts to reflect as clearly as possible the different choices ministers may wish to consider.


At MC11 in Buenos Aires, Jamaica's Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Minister Kamina Johnson Smith was appointed as facilitator for the fisheries subsidies negotiations. Members continued negotiations and concluded with a Ministerial Decision on Fisheries Subsidies containing a commitment from members to secure a deal which delivers on Sustainable Development Goal 14.6 by the end of 2019. More on the MC11 outcome here.

The Negotiating Group on Rules currently (early 2018) is reflecting on how best to move its work forward in fulfilment of the Ministerial Decision.


IUU fishing: Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing-which is the subject of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate IUU Fishing--refers inter alia to fishing and fishing-related activities conducted in contravention of national, regional and international laws; non-reporting, misreporting or under-reporting of information on fishing operations and their catches; fishing by “stateless” vessels; fishing in areas under the mandate of Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) by non-party vessels;  and fishing activities which are not regulated by States and cannot be easily monitored and accounted for. In the WTO negotiations, members are debating which IUU determinations, by which entities, and under which conditions, could be used as the bases for prohibiting subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing.

Overfishing/overfished stocks: Overfishing of a stock is generally a circumstance where the fishing effort is excessive in relation to the stock's abundance and rate of reproduction, such that a reduction of the level of fishing would lead to an increase in the total catch. A stock generally is considered overfished when it is exploited beyond an explicit limit set to ensure safe reproduction. In the negotiations, members are debating what indicators and reference points, and what approaches, could be used as the bases for prohibiting subsidies that contribute to overfishing, or that harm already-overfished stocks.

Overcapacity: Overcapacity generally refers to the ability of a fleet to fish at levels which exceed the sustainable catch level in a fishery (for example, because of too many vessels and/or too many fishers). There is, however, no generally agreed method to measure capacity. The FAO has warned that overcapacity frequently leads to overfishing and IUU fishing. In the negotiations, WTO members are debating whether and how to discipline subsidies that contribute to overcapacity, including how such subsidies could be identified.

EEZ: The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as generally extending 200 nautical miles from shore, within which the coastal state has the right to explore and exploit, and the responsibility to conserve and manage, both living and non-living resources. Some proposals would calibrate certain disciplines depending on whether the subsidized fishing activity takes place within or beyond a member's EEZ.

Territorial waters: UNCLOS defines territorial waters as extending at most 12 nautical miles from the shore of a coastal state. Some proposals would calibrate certain disciplines depending on whether the subsidized fishing activity takes place within or beyond a member's territorial waters.