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WTO fails to net deal to halt over-fishing before deadline

15 December 2020, MVT 14:20
A fishing boat in Bangladesh employing nets into the open sea to trawl for fish. It is not common practice for those who favour sustainable methods of fishing. PHOTO: MIHAARU STOCK PHOTOS
15 December 2020, MVT 14:20

The World Trade Organization on Monday said it had failed to clinch a long-awaited deal on banning subsidies that contributed to over-fishing by a year-end deadline, adding that talks would resume in January.F

resh rounds of meetings will begin in the week starting January 18, said Colombian ambassador Santiago Wills, who has been chairing the negotiations.

That means a further extension of discussions that have been going for nearly 20 years.

It is widely agreed that action is needed against over-fishing, which is stripping the seas of a hugely important resource that millions of people depend on for their livelihoods, but two decades of discussions have yet to resolve how to proceed.

"It is now clear that we simply cannot make up the time we've lost due the Covid 19 pandemic and bring the negotiations to a successful outcome this year," Wills told reporters.

He said there had been a lot of progress during the talks throughout the year, but not enough.

"The delegations put forward many interesting ideas and in some areas there was a willingness to compromise" but added that "major differences remain."

The coronavirus crisis forced a work shutdown for several months earlier this year.

While discussions resumed a few weeks ago, the restrictions around physical meetings, as well as the multiple difficulties facing members as a result of the crisis created significant obstacles.

'The urgency is growing'

Wills said he intends to issue a new revised draft text at the end of the week for governments to consider.

"The urgency is growing," he stressed. "While we talk, fish stocks continue to decline due to overfishing. Our mandate remains unchanged."

Negotiations began at the WTO in Doha in 2001 and got a much-needed boost with the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.

That set the end of 2020 as the non-binding deadline for eliminating subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

WTO's inability to conclude the negotiations by the end of this year marks a clear setback not only for the global trade body, but for the overall UN system which will miss that target.

Despite the years of discussion, multiple fault lines still exist, including over whether there are good subsidies and bad subsidies.

European countries and others such as Japan and South Korea want a ban on subsidies, except where it has a positive impact and any potential negative effects can be cancelled out.

Others believe, on the contrary, that any subsidy is inherently bad and should be removed, while there are also voices calling for subsidy caps.

One of the main stumbling blocks appears to be how developing countries and the poorest nations will be treated.

Some, such as India, are calling for themselves to be almost completely exempt from any constraints.

"It is patently clear people around the world are very disappointed that harmful fisheries subsidies continue to exist," said Peter Thomson, the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for the Ocean and Co-Chair of Friends of Ocean Action.

"These subsidies have been identified as one of the chief causes of the ecosystem collapses we're observing in the ocean."

The demand from some countries to be virtually exempt from any subsidy constraints is difficult for everyone to accept, especially since the WTO system allows its members to self-identify as developing countries.

Many of the major fishing nations are considered developing countries, including China, which has one of the world's biggest fishing fleets.

Geneva, Switzerland | AFP