mc12 briefing note

Negotiations on fisheries subsidies

WTO members have been in negotiations for global rules to curb harmful fisheries subsidies since 2001. Highlighting the growing urgency of the issue, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has said: “Let's try and get it done. Twenty-one years is too long.”

According to data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, fish stocks are at risk of collapsing in many parts of the world due to overexploitation. It is estimated that 34% of global stocks are overfished compared with 10% in 1974, meaning they are being exploited at a pace where the fish population cannot replenish itself. Declining fish stocks threaten to worsen poverty and endanger communities that rely on capture fisheries for their livelihood and food security. In theory, low fish stocks should mean fishing takes more time and costs more money. However, state funding — estimated to range from USD 14 billion to USD 54 billion per year globally — enables many fishing fleets to operate longer and farther at sea, to the detriment of marine life.

The creation of fisheries subsidies disciplines has been the subject of work in the WTO's Negotiating Group on Rules since 2001, with an elaboration of its negotiating mandate agreed in 2005. The adoption by world leaders in September 2015 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the negotiating mandate agreed at the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC11) in 2017 gave a renewed sense of urgency to the talks.

The current chair of the negotiations, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, was elected in November 2019. Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, upon taking office on 1 March 2021, identified the conclusion of the fisheries subsidies negotiations as a priority for MC12. Ministers in a virtual meeting on 15 July 2021 reaffirmed their commitment to conclude negotiations and instructed delegations to prepare as clean a text as possible for a draft Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies.

Following text-based negotiations among members, the chair on 24 November 2021 submitted a draft Agreement for ministers' attention ahead of the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12), which was scheduled to start on 30 November. However, on 26 November 2021, WTO members decided to postpone MC12 after an outbreak of a particularly transmissible strain of the COVID-19 virus led several governments to impose travel restrictions that would have prevented many ministers from reaching Geneva. This marked the second time that the pandemic has forced a postponement of MC12. The meeting was originally due to take place in June 2020 in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.

Nevertheless, members continued negotiations on the basis of the draft agreement. The latest intensive meetings dubbed “fish week” and “fish decision week” on 16-20 May 2022 and 30 May-4 June 2022 were convened to pave the way for decisions to be made to close the remaining gaps ahead of MC12. Just days before MC12, on the occasion of World Ocean Day on 8 June 2022, the chair reported in a video message that WTO members have been making considerable progress and are engaging in a pragmatic and solution-seeking manner.

“We have the chance to make a difference and help in the conservation and sustainable use of our oceans by finally reaching this historic Agreement,” the chair said. “Concluding a global legally binding agreement to curb harmful fisheries subsidies could be the single most important milestone on ocean sustainability of the year.”


More on negotiations on fisheries subsidies.

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