Introduction to fisheries subsidies in the WTO

Fisheries industries worldwide are vital for providing food and livelihood to people. The challenge, however, is to meet present demands while safeguarding resources for future generations. Subsidies for fishing are thus on the negotiating agenda to ensure that governments find a sustainable balance between supporting fisheries production and conservation.


According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, fish stocks that are within biologically sustainable levels has fallen from 90.0 percent in 1974 to 66.9 percent in 2015. Certain forms of fisheries subsidies could be contributing to  overfishing and overcapacity of fleets around the world as well as  enabling illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

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. The effort received new impetus after the adoption by world leaders in September 2015 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG target 14.6 sets a deadline of 2020 for eliminating IUU subsidies 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.

In late 2016, a series of new proposals from members began to be submitted in the run up to the WTO's 11th Ministerial Conference (MC11) to be held in Buenos Aires the following year. All of these proposals were explicitly aimed at achieving binding outcomes to be adopted at MC11. However, the approaches to these proposed prohibitions varied too much for substantive outcomes to be achieved. 

Nevertheless, members agreed to continue to engage constructively in the fisheries subsidies negotiations with a view to adopting an agreement by the end of 2019 on comprehensive and effective disciplines that prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Members also recognized that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment should be an integral part of these negotiations.

By November 2019, however, members noted difficulties in concluding negotiations, , with some citing the complexities of the discussions, the remaining divergences in positions, and the absence of a chair for a few months. Members have nevertheless committed to intensifying their discussions to conclude negotiations at the 12th Ministerial Conference in Nur-Sultan on 8-11 June 2020. 

The latest news items on the negotiations are available here.


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