UPDATES: the WTO fisheries subsidies talks

Links to some key documents and news

Fishing boats | Edi Libedinsky via Unsplash CC0

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By Peter Ungphakorn

The drive for a WTO agreement on fisheries subsidies accelerated in 2021 and eventually led to a slightly stripped down agreement at the Geneva Ministerial Conference in June 2022.

The first target had been missed to conclude all or most of the subject by July 2021, but the aim was still for a formal agreement to be struck at the ministerial conference at the end of the year. That was postponed, and negotiators headed into 2022 aiming to conclude as quickly as possible.

Agreement was achieved at the ministerial conference on June 17, 2022, but with a vital piece missing. Talks continue to find that missing piece. Failure means the agreement self-destructs.

See also: ‘Fisheries subsidies’ has been agreed by WTO ministers. What’s next?

Updates on the latest developments will be added here, with links to new documents and news items.

Key events

February 28, 2023 — WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iwealla tells members she has softened her ambition for the Fisheries Subsidies Agreement to take effect.

She had previously aimed for one year from the decision at the June 2022 Ministerial Conference, but the needed ratification from two-thirds of the members (110 from 164) is now unlikely to happen by then. Her target now is by the next Ministerial Conference in the week of February 26, 2024, she told a heads of delegations meeting.

The agreement enters into force in the ratifying countries after their number has passed two-thirds of the membership. It does not enter into force in countries that have not ratified it. See explanation.

So far only Switzerland and Singapore have ratified, but others are expected to follow soon, but not as fast as originally hoped.

Okonjo-Iweala warned developing countries that those who do not ratify the agreement will not be able to draw on the new WTO Fisheries Fund since the agreement won’t apply to them. The fund has been up-and-running since Japan made the first donation on February 8.

January 27, 2023 — WTO members finally agree on a new chair for the fisheries subsidies negotiations: Iceland’s ambassador Einar Gunnarsson. (Ambassador Alparslan Acarsoy of Türkiye was also picked to chair the agriculture negotiations).

The deadlock (see November 1, 2022) centred on the rival candidacy of Sri Lanka’s ambassador, Gothami Silva, who is said to have “touted” her own credentials, complained about the process and had the support of India and Venezuela. By January 27, 2023 she is said to have returned to her capital.

January 20 and 24, and February 10, 2023 — the first ratification is announced — six months after agreement was reachedby Switzerland, hosting the annual meeting of trade ministers on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The official document is circulated four days later on January 24, 2023.

Switzerland is landlocked and does not have sea fishing or aquaculture (although it does have registered merchant ships).

Next came Singapore, on February 10, 2023 (circulated five days later). Further updates are on the WTO website’s list of ratifications.

To repeat: the agreement does not apply until two thirds of the WTO membership have ratified it, and even then it only applies in the countries that have ratified. Worth watching: how quickly and how many of the major fishing members will ratify it. The current top 10 fishing countries are: China, Indonesia, Peru, Russia, US, India, Vietnam, Japan, Norway, Chile. The EU as a whole would rank too. (See table 2 of the FAO’s “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022)

November 30, 2022 — formal General Council meeting: chairs’ selection still unresolved and still no ratifications yet. The EU says it will ratify in 2023. Twitter thread, Mastodon thread. See also WTO website (focusing mainly on Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s statements, not on what members said).

November 1, 2022 — a row breaks out among WTO members in an informal meeting of the General Council, on choosing a new chair. Should it be a package with the new agriculture negotiations chair? Are the three people consulting members on the selection biased? Have the Sri Lankan ambassador’s credentials been ignored? Twitter thread and report in Inside US Trade.

October 10, 2022 — The “retreat” in Evian, France, summarised in a WTO website news story. Understandably, it is vague on what participants actually said. It was held under the Chatham House Rule of non-attribution to anything said in the meeting except where specifically agreed.

Some private accounts suggest a number of participants (but not all) were willing to contribute in the spirit of “brainstorming” and to overlook their official positions. The size of the event and the broad questions asked meant that the discussion tended to be general rather than give-and-take on negotiating points.

A number of participants said too little is known about subsidies for fishing and called for a series of information sessions before getting back to negotiations. Some are said to have called for transparency provisions to be implemented even before the agreement is ratified and takes effect.

How useful the retreat was may depend on what happens next in the negotiations.

About 200 officials from almost 100 countries attended, the WTO said. The retreat included breakout groups. Former chair Santiago Wills summed up with these points:

  • Members expressed a common desire to conclude negotiations on a comprehensive and effective agreement by the next Ministerial Conference with a strong focus on overcapacity and overfishing, including special and differential treatment
  • Members emphasized that the second wave of negotiations should continue to uphold the principles of openness, inclusiveness and transparency
  • Members suggested a concrete first step of building knowledge that would inform the second wave of negotiations
  • Members underlined the urgent need to appoint a new chair to lead the next stage of the fisheries subsidies negotiations

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) made an on-the-record statement linking the WTO agreement with information about the current situation, and describing related activities on fisheries in the FAO and where the two organisations can work together:

“As measured by the Maximum Sustainable Yield, or MSY, the trend is discouraging, as the number of sustainable stocks in the world fell by 1.2 percent in 2019, to 64.6 percent, continuing the decline that has been observed for decades. And I am aware that some other estimates put the number of sustainable stocks lower, so this trend needs to be a continuing cause for concern and focused policy attention. One encouraging finding of SOFIA [the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report] in this regard is that catches from sustainable stocks are increasing, accounting for 82.5 percent of total catches, up a remarkable 3.8 percent since the previous report. These are typically the better-managed stocks, demonstrating that fisheries management effectively adds value to society, operators, and to the hundreds of millions of livelihoods that depend on fishing.”

Photo of Wills on the phone during all an all night session
All-round praise: Santiago Wills’ handling of the fisheries subsidies agreement received acclaim at the Ministerial Conference | WTO

September 26, 2022 — Tributes paid to outgoing chair Santiago Wills, whose final report on latest developments included this:

“Now, I would like to address one question that has been raised with me more than a few times — what exactly happened during the Ministerial Conference?

“In particular, I know that many of you are still wondering how and why some of the changes were made in the Agreement compared to the earlier version sent to Ministers in document WT/MIN(22)/W/20 (the W/20 text) [with accompanying explanation]. And while I myself am still trying to recall everything that happened over the course of the five nights and four and a half days of the Conference, allow me to use this opportunity to share some of my recollections.

“As you all know, over the course of MC12 [the 12th Ministerial Conference in June] Ministers engaged very intensively on fisheries subsidies, on different issues and in different configurations, aiming to bridge the remaining gaps. Through several meetings on different configurations with most delegations and a couple of overnight sessions with several Ministers, the W/20 text went through a distillation process where provisions that all could accept were starting to be identified. That version of the text was presented in the early hours of 16 June 2022 and then again later in the morning of that same day. Towards the end of the day of 16 June 2022, and after many discussions throughout the day, a group of Heads of Delegation representing the main active Members and groups further distilled the document that became the final text of the Agreement. Again, all this by identifying the provisions in the W/20 text that all could accept, by temporarily setting aside provisions where consensus had not emerged, and introducing a new final Article containing a termination clause. That clause was introduced at the insistence of Members wanting to ensure that the remaining issues would continue to be the subject of further negotiations, and not simply abandoned.”

The search for a new chair begins. A “retreat” on fisheries subsidies is announced. (WTO website news story)

Small fishing boat on blue sea photographed from above, with displaced shape of jigsaw puzzle
Missing: provisions on overcapacity and overfishing were set aside | original photo Nirmal Rajendharkumar, Unspalsh licence

June 17, July 13, 2022 — WTO members agree on the final fisheries subsidies text (see also identical draft sent to ministers). Article 5, originally on “subsidies contributing to overcapacity and overfishing”, is stripped down to brief provisions on “other subsidies”. It is now the missing piece of the agreement, which will terminate after four years of entering into force if “comprehensive disciplines are not adopted”, or the General Council agrees to extend it.

Two cover pages accompany the agreement.

One is a formal decision on the agreement. It also sets a target for “recommendations” on completing the missing part by the next Ministerial Conference (currently scheduled for late 2023). This would be well ahead of the self-destruct deadline of Article 12.

The other is a protocol, ie, a legal instrument for adding the agreement to the WTO rule book as an amendment annexed to the WTO Agreement. A document certifying that the protocol is a “certified true copy” was circulated on July 13.

The agreement now goes to members to ratify (“accept”) it. It enters into force in the ratifying countries after their number has passed two-thirds of the membership. It does not enter into force in countries that have not ratified it. See explanation.

June 10, 2022 — Chair Santiago Wills submitted his latest draft to the June 12–15 Ministerial Conference, “without prejudice to any Member’s positions or views, whether or not reflected herein”. Attached was a 23-page explanatory note. He told delegations:

“I am very pleased to say that, this evening, I finished working on a revised draft of the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies which has been sent to ministers for their consideration at [the Ministerial Conference]. In some places the draft text is my best attempt to suggest an outcome that I think is most likely to attract consensus. In some areas I am delighted to say it is not my work at all. Instead, the text presented came from groups of members with very different starting positions and who, working together, resolved their differences and presented to the plenary a text they could all accept.

“Overall, the draft Agreement sent to ministers this evening represents my best and honest effort at presenting to them a draft that is as clean as possible with only a few decisions for them to focus on, negotiate, and agree. After over 20 years, it is long past time for the WTO to deliver on its promise to agree to rules that will stop subsidies for illegal and excessive fishing.”

May 20, 2022 — At the end of five days of negotiations, the chair, Santiago Wills briefed the media on progress made and the on remaining differences, and called for agreement on the text in the week of May 30, 2022. His statement to the media is here. See also this Twitter thread, and the WTO website news story.

April 7, 2022 — “In Focus: A Draft WTO Agreement to Curb Harmful Fisheries Subsidies”, a 10-minute video explanation of the draft by Alice Tipping and IISD

February 15, 2022 — “From these various consultations, I got the general sense that members are interested in using the current period to continue trying to make progress toward concluding the negotiations as soon as possible,” the chair of the negotiations, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia told an informal meeting. (Chair of fisheries subsidies negotiations reports on consultations with members, WTO news story)

December 10, 2021Chair of fisheries subsidies negotiations outlines next steps for work in the new year (WTO news story) Fisheries subsidies negotiations aim to conclude as quickly as possible in the new year, the chair of the negotiations, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia reported.

November 26, 2021WTO General Council decides to postpone Ministerial Conference indefinitely (WTO news story)

November 24, 2021 — revised 9-page draft (WT/MIN(21)/W/5) and 18-page explanation (WT/MIN(21)/W/5/Add.1) issued as official ministerial documents. See also this WTO news story, including statements by the chair. One issue seems to be settled: it’s proposed as an “agreement”

November 18, 2021If ‘fisheries subsidies’ is agreed by WTO ministers, what then? The implications of the next procedural steps are little known. This could still take some time

November 8, 2021‘A lot rests on Members’ shoulders’ — sixth WTO fisheries text circulated, including chair’s statement for media. Links to the chair’s revised 8-page draft (TN/RL/W/276/Rev.2) and 20-page explanation (TN/RL/W/276/Rev.2/Add.1). See also this WTO news story

October 29, 2021 — The WTO website reports a possible breakthrough, but gives no details. Talks chair Santiago Wills says:

“I continue to have a strong sense of optimism that we will conclude these negotiations, notwithstanding the differences that we still need to bridge. The next few weeks will not be easy as this is the time to bridge those differences. I will be continuing to reach out to different members in different configurations, to listen carefully and to prepare the ground as much as possible for MC12 [the November 30–December 3 Ministerial Conference].”

October 4–5, 2021 — As negotiators worked through the chair’s draft, there were signs that transparency might be a compromise alternative to banning fuel subsidies that are not directly for fishing (India’s new proposal; EU willing to consider). But members remain divided on (1) transparency from developing countries although the African Group suggested technical assistance to achieve this might help, and (2) the US proposal for countries to supply information on use of forced labour.

Members remained blocked on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing — how to determine fishing is IUU, and whether prohibitions should apply only to IUU boats or to whole fleets containing IUU boats.

Daily meetings are scheduled for October 11–29, going through the draft line by line.

See also WTO negotiations on fisheries subsidies hit “dark” patch, SeafoodSource, October 8, 2021

September 24, 2021 — Negotiators discussed new papers from India and the African-Caribbean-Pacific (ACP) countries (with the African Group), with little sign of movement towards compromise. Several delegations said India’s proposal was not oriented towards a solution and “had no element that could help bring about a compromise between members” (see Amiti Sen in Hindu Business Line, September 26, 2021).

August 30, 2021WTO members gear up for marathon fishing subsidy negotiations starting September (WTO website)

July 15, 2021Optimism after WTO ministers meet on fisheries subsidies, despite splits, including links to other reports and more information. See also: WTO news story, opening and closing statements by the WTO director-General and the negotiations’ chair, video of press conference

June 30, 2021Fisheries subsidies chair floats new text 15 days before ministers meet, including chair’s statement for media. Links to the chair’s revised 8-page draft (TN/RL/W/276/Rev.1) and 17-page explanation (TN/RL/W/276/Rev.1/Add.1). See also this WTO news story

May 27, 2021The use of forced labor on fishing vessels, US proposal

May 11, 2021New fisheries subsidies text published as talks head for endgame, including chair’s statement for media. The 9-page new text is here, with a 26-page explanation (and correction, June 9) from the chair. See also this WTO news story

April 21, 2021Ministerial meeting eyed for July as fisheries subsidies negotiations enter final phase (WTO news story). See also this from AFP

April 21, 2021 — Negotiations’ chair, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia: summary of statement to the meeting (WTO news) and statement for media

Negotiating at distance: the podium in the online talks | WTO
Negotiating at distance: the podium in the online talks, Okonjo-Iweala (centre left) and Wills (centre right), April 21, 2021 | WTO

April 21, 2021 — Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s statement to heads of delegations in the negotiations, including a proposal for a meeting with ministers in July. Now also on the WTO website

April 12, 2021DG calls on WTO members to narrow remaining gaps in fisheries subsidies negotiations (WTO news story)

December 2020 — the chair’s draft consolidated text has been leaked here.

WTO news archive: fisheries subsidies

Image credits
Fishing boats (main photo) | Edi Libedinsky, Unspalsh licence
Others as captioned


Author: Peter Ungphakorn

I used to work at the WTO Secretariat (1996–2015), and am now an occasional freelance journalist, focusing mainly on international trade rules, agreements and institutions. (Previously, analysis for AgraEurope.) Trade β Blog is for trialling ideas on trade and any other subject, hence “β”. You can respond by using the contact form on the blog or tweeting @CoppetainPU

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