Friends of Ocean Action supports call for adoption of WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies no later than February 2022

“On the issue of sustainability of the ocean and our fisheries resources, negotiations have been going on for 21 years without results. But for the first time we have momentum and we actually expected that at that meeting [the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference] we would be able to close the deal with ministers. So the issue is that although the meeting was postponed, to no fault of the WTO, we are continuing work apace; everybody feels we can really clinch this agreement. So we are going to set ourselves a deadline of after the holidays early next year trying to get to yes on the dossier.”
- Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, World Trade Organization (WTO) Director General, December 2021 (extract from an interview with CNBC)

Geneva, Switzerland – 20 December 2021

Since the World Trade Organization’s 12th Ministerial Conference was postponed at the last moment at the end of November 2021 due to the latest pandemic developments, WTO Director General Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has expressed repeatedly her confidence that WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations can and should be concluded by the end of February 2022. Most recently, on 8 December, in her “Class of 2022” video interview with Politico, Dr Ngozi announced that she had written to all WTO members asking them to stick to that deadline. Friends of Ocean Action welcomes Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s leadership and supports her determination to finalize the fisheries subsidies negotiations in the month of February.

Friends of Ocean Action considers that the latest draft Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies tabled by the Chair of the Negotiating Group, Ambassador Santiago Wills from Colombia, provides a balanced basis to advance the implementation of SDG 14 Target 6, the Sustainable Development Goal whereby the WTO was mandated to end by 2020 fisheries subsidies contributing to overfishing, overcapacity and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

On 10 December 2021, the WTO reported that, after MC12 was postponed, Ambassador Wills “met a wide variety of members and groups holding different views on different topics”, and said that “although there were different ideas about the specific timing, most, if not all, expressed a clear commitment to concluding these negotiations as quickly as possible […] We just need to keep working in a careful and solution-oriented mode to finally get there.” Another encouraging sign was a statement to the Reuters news agency, also on 10 December 2021, by China’s Ambassador to the WTO Li Chenggang, that his country would forego the benefits from its status as a developing economy: “In major negotiations on cutting fishing subsidies in order to boost global fish stocks, China which is a major fishing nation, may forego all such exemptions.”

While the pandemic caused the 2020 deadline to be missed, Friends of Ocean Action urges WTO members to wrap up the work now, so that it can be featured as a major outcome at the upcoming High Level UN Ocean Conference at the end of June 2022 in Lisbon.

As always at the WTO, nothing is agreed before everything is agreed. A deal requires consensus by all WTO Members. As the draft Agreement stands now, out of the 46 paragraphs forming the 11 Articles of the draft Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies, only 11 paragraphs (and one footnote) are still square bracketed. This reflects considerable progress toward consensus, even if some critical priorities remain:

  • Fuel subsidies: Articles 1.2 and 8.1bis
  • Special & Differential Treatment: Articles 3.8, 4.4, 5.4, 6.2, 6.3, 7
  • Forced labour: Article 8.2(b)
  • Flag State control: Article 5.3
  • Implications for disputed territorial claims: Article 11.3

These are important issues, and Friends of Ocean Action supports Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s and Ambassador Wills’ calls upon WTO Members to exercise flexibility. It is the job of negotiators to defend their countries’ position and they have all done this very well until now. But in the final stage, it is up to Ministers to find common ground.

If Ministers are not able to do this, one option would be to ask the WTO Director General to arbitrate. Another option could be to agree to a limited set of temporary opt-out clauses for certain countries. Even if no consensus can be found for some of the remaining issues, these outstanding difficulties should not delay the adoption of the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies within the end of February deadline.

Institutional arrangements under Article 9 of the draft Agreement provide the opportunity to improve the Agreement in the future, based on experience gained, and this could apply to some of the issues that remain in accordance with the draft Agreement. Article 9 establishes that a Committee composed of representatives from all WTO Members shall meet “not less than twice a year” or more at the request of any Member, to “afford Members the opportunity of consulting on any matter relating to the operation of the Agreement or the furtherance of its objectives” (Art. 9.1.); it “shall examine all information provided […] not less than every two years”; it “shall review annually the implementation and operation of this Agreement, taking into account the objectives thereof”; and “not later than five years after the date of entry into force […] and every three years thereafter, the Committee shall review the operation of this Agreement with a view to identifying all necessary modifications to improve the operation […], taking into account the objectives thereof”, and “where appropriate, the Committee may submit to the Council for Trade in Goods proposals to amend the text of this Agreement having regard, inter alia, to the experience gained in its implementation.”

In light of Article 9, and provided that WTO Members commit to a swift entry into force of the Agreement and that they resolve by the end of February Articles 3.8, 4.4, 5.4, 6.2, 6.3 and 7 which are of special importance to developing countries, Friends of Ocean Action would welcome the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies.

Outstanding issues regarding fuel subsidies (Articles 1.2 and 8.1bis), forced labour (Article 8.2(b)), flag State control (Article 5.3) and territorial disputes (Article 11.3) could be subject to temporary opt-out clauses for certain countries, pending further consideration by the Committee established under Article 9.

Friends of Ocean Action has expressed many times the view that fuel subsidies enhance overcapacity, and that Flag State control represents an essential element of ocean governance. Friends of Ocean Action also believes that conflicting territorial claims should not stand in the way of fisheries management, and of course that forced labour on board fishing vessels should be eradicated. But if these issues continue to stand in the way of the adoption in early 2022 of the Agreement on Fisheries, Friends of Ocean Action urges WTO Members to make arrangements to pursue these issues within and as part of the work programme of the newly formed WTO Committee.

For more information, please contact Gemma Parkes, Communications Lead at Friends of Ocean Action, on or +41 (0)79 305 2977.