WTO Fishing treaty to leave Pacific Island nations poorer


Opinion by Adam Wolfenden, Campaigner Pacific Network on Globalisation

As Ministers celebrated the conclusion the 12th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation and an agreement on fisheries subsidies trade rules, 17,000 kilometers away in the Pacific Ocean, eight women were also being celebrated as the first all-women deck crew on a tuna longline fishing vessel in Fiji, the Pacific and perhaps in the world.

The Geneva meeting rightly celebrates the conclusion of over two decades of negotiations but that decision on June 17 does not target the big subsidising nations and may undermine Pacific fisheries management.

It will also make it harder to subsidise small-scale fishers who are employers of most Pacific Islanders. .

For over two decades, the WTO had been negotiating an agreement that would amongst other things fulfil Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)14.6, which is to prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies estimated to be USD$35.4 billion in 2018, which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing.

Following the Geneva meeting, Tim Ayres, the Assistant Minister for Trade, Assistant Minister for Manufacturing commended the efforts of Pacific island nations saying that “achieving consensus across the WTO’s 164 Members is notoriously difficult, but a partnership between Australia and Fiji, during the tough later stages of the Conference saved the outcome.”

“This innovative new provision will reduce overfishing on the high seas by major fishing nations with long-distance fleets, the type of fishing that is most harmful to fish stocks in the Pacific region,” he said.

Australia and Fiji, he said, worked with Samoa, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and Vanuatu to insist on a treaty upgrade within four years to tackle subsidies which lead to overcapacity and overfishing.

But Pacific Network on Globalisation campaigner Adam Wolfenden believes the “Geneva Package” is flawed as it favours countries with large capacity for subsidising and reporting and those most responsible for overfishing.

“It has limited and not eliminated subsidies and failed to target those historically responsible for overfishing, the burdens of the agreement are being carried by those least responsible,”  Wolfenden said.

There are concerns that the fish rich, but resource poor Pacific Island nations do not have the capacity to fulfil all the conditions of the agreement which includes having monitoring, reporting, control and surveillance systems in place in the next two years.

The Geneva Package also allows fishing of overfished stocks provided there are measures in place to rebuild those stocks to a sustainable level.

“Demonstrating the sustainability measures for such a fish stock opens up the opportunity for the Pacific nations to be challenged on the measures they have in place,” Wolfenden says.

“Before the Ministerial, the Chair of the negotiations outlined how the review process can allow other countries to question and ultimately challenge the management measures of another member. This is not a good outcome as the WTO has no expertise on fisheries management.

“There are concerns the sustainability exemption mentioned above will only be available to those with the capacity to measure, manage and report on their fish stocks. This will favour the developed countries.”

A positive of the agreement, which was fought for by Pacific Island Members, however, is the two-year allowance on fishing within the geographic limit to 200 nautical miles. The previous text of the agreement had proposed only 12 nautical miles, which would have been a problem for small-scale fishers who regularly fish or want to regularly fish beyond that area, especially if they don’t have access to up-to-date fishing data on the status of stocks and regularly catch multiple species. Further it is more consistent with the United Nations Law of the Sea and the rights and responsibilities it grants to Coastal States for their 200nm Exclusive Economic Zone.

The Agreement recognised that small developing nations would have challenges fulfilling the agreement but the pledge towards the voluntary fund to support these countries currently only stands at USD$5 million, which is insufficient to support island nations.

Wolfenden pointed out that the agreement also failed to address the issue of fleet and fishing capacity as members irrespective of size or historical responsibility of overfishing can subsidise their fleets if they’re fishing in waters under the jurisdiction of a WTO member or regional fisheries management organisation.

“The failure to specifically target the vessel capacity of the big fleets, and demand they carry the burden of the outcome, has seen them essentially remain unchanged with the exception of funding high seas fishing,” he added.

“The SDG mandate called for appropriate and effective Special and Differential Treatment (SDT) as an integral part of the outcome but that is not contained in the outcome. Promises of future negotiations are an inadequate substitute. The text remains imbalanced for developing countries and small fishing nations.” .
Adam Wolfenden
Pacific Network on Globalisation
Email: campaigner@pang.org.fj
Ph: +61 401 045 536