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International: Negotiations Underway at WTO for Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies

(Dec. 6, 2019) On November 15, 2019, members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) held discussions on the difficulties they have encountered in curbing harmful fisheries subsidies through international trade negotiations, as well as on the potential ways such negotiations might be successful in the future. Underpinning this work, the WTO negotiating group has endorsed four working papers over the past year, reflecting members’ various positions on issues related to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, with the goal of meeting United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 14.6. The goal of Target 14.6 is “eliminating subsidies to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing 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.”

As the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development notes in its report Fisheries Subsidies Rules at the WTO,

[t]here is strong evidence from economic modelling and case studies that subsidies to fishing can create incentives for over-capitalisation of the industry and for unsustainable levels of fishing effort. By the most recent estimates, subsidies to the fishing industry [among WTO members] amounted to around US$35 billion per year, of which around US$20 billion were given in forms that tend to enhance fishing capacity. Around 60 percent of assessed fish stocks are fully exploited and 30 percent are already overexploited.

Several other international organizations, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the World Bank, have also brought attention to the importance of Target 14.6. In addition, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the UN Organization for Migration have joined the FAO in noting that IUU fishing can commonly lead to transnational crimes, such as human trafficking and exploitation of migrant and youth workers.

While fishing was ranked the second most dangerous job in the world in 2019, only fourteen states have ratified ILO Convention No. 188 (2007), the treaty designed to provide minimum standards for the employment of workers on fishing vessels, including minimum age, conditions of service, safety of workers, payments, repatriation, accommodations, and other matters.

The many facets of legal disputes over IUU fishing continue to be debated among scholars and practitioners. In June 2020, the United Nations will host the UN Ocean Conference, in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution No. 73/292, to support the implementation of Goal 14: conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.