Introduction to fisheries subsidies in the WTO

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reports that 80 per cent of world fish stocks are either fully exploited or overexploited.


Meanwhile, governments around the world continue to provide billions, and by some accounts tens of billions, of dollars in subsidies to the fisheries sector. The Doha Ministerial Conference launched negotiations to clarify and improve WTO disciplines on fisheries subsidies, and at the Hong Kong Ministerial Conference in 2005 there was broad agreement on strengthening those disciplines, including through a prohibition of certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing. The challenge now facing the Negotiating Group on Rules is to develop stronger rules while respecting the important policy concerns of WTO members, particularly developing and least-developed countries.

An informal grouping of members calling themselves the “Friends of Fish” (including Argentina, Australia, Chile, Colombia, New Zealand, Norway, Iceland, Pakistan, Peru and the United States) say that subsidies to the fisheries sector — estimated at $14–$20.5 billion annually, or 20–25 per cent of revenues — have led to over-capacity and overfishing. Japan, the Rep. of Korea and Chinese Taipei, on the other hand, have expressed scepticism over the link between subsidies and over-fishing. Many developing countries are asking for flexibility in granting subsidies to their fisheries sectors.

First draft text from the Chairman

The WTO Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong, China in December 2005 directed the Negotiating Group “to intensify and accelerate the negotiating process,” and also mandated the Chairman to prepare consolidated texts of the Anti-Dumping and Subsidies Agreements “that shall be the basis for the final stage of the negotiations.”

On 30 November 2007, the Chairman of the Group circulated to members his first draft consolidated texts on anti-dumping and subsidies and countervailing measures, including fisheries subsidies. For anti-dumping and horizontal subsidies disciplines, the texts proposed specific changes to the existing Agreements on Anti-dumping and on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures. For fisheries subsidies, the texts proposed an entirely new set of sector-specific disciplines, contained in a proposed new Annex VIII to the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures.

The proposed new disciplines on fisheries subsidies as reflected in the Chairman’s first draft text would include a prohibited category covering, inter alia, subsidies for construction of new fishing vessels and subsidies for operating costs of fishing. LDCs would be exempted from the new disciplines, and other developing Members would have substantial flexibilities, especially for subsidies to subsistence-type fishing in their territorial waters. All exceptions to the proposed prohibition would be conditioned on compliance with certain provisions related to fisheries management.

A series of informal meetings from December 2007 to May 2008 revealed sharply-conflicting views in the Group on many issues in the first draft Chairman’s texts, including in respect of the proposed disciplines on fisheries subsidies.


In December 2008, in view of the lack of convergence in respect of the most controversial aspects of his first draft texts, the Chairman issued revised texts on anti-dumping and horizontal subsidies disciplines and countervailing measures, reflecting “a bottom-up approach” (i.e., for the most controversial issues, specific proposed legal drafting was replaced by brackets summarizing the range of views expressed). For fisheries subsidies, these texts were accompanied by a “roadmap” of detailed questions for further discussion concerning the main issues in the fisheries subsidies negotiations.

In 2009 in respect of fisheries subsidies, the Negotiating Group systematically addressed all of the questions in the roadmap. By the end of the year, the Group had completed this review and had begun to consider new substantive proposals submitted by delegations.