WTO seeks agreement on fisheries deal in tough Abu Dhabi talks

The anti-subsidies fisheries agreement is important to the 260 million people globally who depend on oceans for their livelihood

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the World Trade Organisation, addresses delegates during a session on fisheries subsidies at the 13th WTO Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi. AFP
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Trade ministers from around the globe have been engaged in tough talks at the World Trade Organisation's 13th Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi, where negotiations on a key fisheries subsidies deal will be a major focus.

“They just started … we have to be cautiously optimistic because we have to push things forward,” Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi, Minister of State for Foreign Trade and the conference chairman, told The National on Tuesday, hours after the discussions began.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the WTO, said the talks are still in early stages and it would be “very presumptuous to judge” their progress after a couple of hours. However, she is “cautiously optimistic”, she told a press briefing.

About 70 WTO member countries have accepted the anti-subsidies fisheries agreement reached in 2022 at the 12th Ministerial conference, with 40 more members required to reach the two-thirds approval needed for it to come into force.

On Monday, eight countries presented their instruments of acceptance at the MC13 conference: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Rwanda, Brunei, Chad, Malaysia, Norway and Togo.

“MC13 is driving towards ratifications.” Ms Okonjo-Iweala said on Monday. “We will now have 40 members to go so the countdown towards entry into force can now start in earnest.”

“Those members yet to ratify, I have a list of you. You know who you are. I hope you can work fast … When we succeed, it will be the fastest entry into force of any WTO agreement and I know we will.”

Differing perspectives

The closed-session talks are taking place on the second day of the WTO's ministerial conference in the UAE capital this week.

Working to curb fisheries subsidies is high on the MC13 agenda.

The agreement adopted at MC12 in Geneva prohibits government support for illegal, unreported and unregulated, fishing, fishing of overfished stocks and fishing on the unregulated high seas.

This year's delegates have two tasks. Firstly, this agreement must enter into force.

Secondly, they will address a second wave of fisheries negotiations targeting subsidies contributing to overcapacity and overfishing, along with corresponding provisions for special and differential treatment to address the needs of developing and least-developed country members.

WTO countries' ministers looks to future in Abu Dhabi

WTO countries' ministers looks to future in Abu Dhabi

“After 20 years of negotiations, an agreement on limiting fisheries subsidies was reached in Geneva at MC12,” Dr Al Zeyoudi said before the start of MC13. “In Abu Dhabi, there is an opportunity to build on that momentous progress by expanding the scope and ambition of that agreement to include some of the subsidies that may be most impacting fragile and depleted fish stocks.

“We are encouraged by the energy and engagement we have seen from members in the run-up to MC13 on fisheries, and believe the groundwork is there for a positive outcome.”

However, the minister underscored the challenges of reaching agreement during the talks.

“We are also under no illusions about the sensitive nature of the questions at issue, and the differing perspectives that a successful outcome will have to reconcile,” he said.

Nearly 260 million people depend directly or indirectly on marine fisheries for their livelihoods, while global dependence on seafood for nutrition is increasing, according to the WTO.

The threat of overfishing to fish stocks worldwide is “alarming”, with estimates that at least 34 per cent of global stocks are overfished compared with 10 per cent in 1974, according to the Geneva-based body. This means they are being exploited so quickly that the fish population cannot replenish itself.

Government funding is currently estimated at $35 billion per year globally, of which, some $22 billion increases the capacity to fish unsustainably.

The WTO argues that these subsidies continue to aggravate the situation by enabling many fishing fleets to operate longer and farther at sea than they otherwise could, to the detriment of marine life.

The WTO has been urged to “not trade away” support for small-scale fishers by their representatives at MC13.

They argue that the ministerial talks are not addressing the main culprits that contribute to the depletion of global fish stocks, such as large-scale fleets.

“With those fleets being let through the net, the worry is that small-scale fishers and developing countries will bear the blame for the lack of an agreement,” Adam Wolfenden, a trade justice campaigner at the Pacific Network on Globalisation, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Delegates at MC13 have the tough task of brokering key trade agreements, amid mounting concerns about the impact of geopolitical tensions.

Disagreements remain between the organisation's 164 members, making consensus on major issues difficult, especially against the challenging backdrop of coming US elections, the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, Red Sea shipping attacks by Yemen's Houthi rebels that have disrupted global trade, US-China tensions and an increasingly protectionist stance by some governments, analysts have said.

Hemita Bhatti, head of trade policy at the UK-based Institute of Export and International Trade, said there was a 50/50 chance the agreement will be ratified at MC13 as a lot of developing countries, including India, China, Indonesia and Philippines, are opposing it, concerned about its impact on their local fisheries industry,

“There is a concern at the moment that fish stocks are depleting globally at an alarming rate,” said Ms Bhatti. “So that is why this subsidies agreement has come to the fore in the first place. But the problem is specifically with developing countries”

She said they don't want to be regarded in the same way as developed countries when it comes to the removal of subsidies because they're worried about costs going up for their fishermen.

“While overfishing is a problem, a lot of developing nations are worried about what it will mean for their local communities … their livelihoods depend on the subsidies.”

If the new deal on fisheries comes into force, it would be the “first time” the WTO put through an agreement on sustainability, Ms Bhatti added.

Updated: February 27, 2024, 3:46 PM