Introduction to fisheries subsidies in the WTO

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reports that nearly 90 per cent of world fish stocks are either fully exploited (58 per cent) or overexploited (31 per cent).


Meanwhile, governments around the world provide billions, and by some accounts tens of billions, of dollars in subsidies to the fisheries sector. These include subsidies to capital and operating costs, which numerous analyses point to as having the potential to contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and thus to unsustainable fishing practices.

Since their launch, the WTO's fisheries subsidies negotiations have had sustainability concerns as their core focus (given that the WTO's existing subsidies rules already address potential trade distortions that can result from subsidization). Also integral to the negotiations have been development concerns of developing and least-developed WTO members, given the critical role of the fisheries sector for many such members. Thus, the need to balance sustainability and development considerations has characterized the negotiations since the outset.

The negotiations were particularly active during the period 2005-2011, and then entered a hiatus until late 2016, when a series of new proposals from members began to be submitted:

All of these proposals explicitly aimed at achieving binding outcomes to be adopted at the 2017 Buenos Aires Ministerial Conference (MC11).

The proponents spanned a diverse group of members – developed, developing and least-developed. All focused, among other things, on prohibiting subsidies contributing to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and most also sought to prohibit subsidies in respect of overfished stocks. Some also sought to address capacity- or effort-enhancing subsidies. However, the approaches to these proposed prohibitions varied too much for substantive outcomes to be agreed at MC11. 

Nevertheless, the 2017 negotiating process leading up to Buenos Aires generated two documents  recognized in the Ministerial Decision as the basis for future text-based negotiations:

  • Working Documents on: Prohibited Subsidies Relating to IUU Fishing, Overfished Stocks, Overcapacity, Capacity-Enhancing Subsidies, and Overfishing; Notifications and Transparency; and Special and Differential Treatment (TN/RL/W/274/Rev.2)

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