A fractious meeting of world trade ministers in Abu Dhabi ended with little to show for the time and money spent early Saturday morning New Zealand time.

Pacific Island nations were seeking at the WTO ministerial meeting to have the governments of the larger fishing nations stop or reduce the subsidies they pay their fishers.

This did not happen but a spokesman for PANG, the Pacific Network on Globalisation, Adam Wolfenden, said this is a better result than having a substandard deal foisted on them, which had been the prospect right to the end.

“It’s not for lack of effort. And I think we’ve seen what was put on the table, the text particularly on fisheries subsidies, and that was on offer right up into the last minute, there was still quite a few holes in it that from.”

Wolfenden said from PANG’s perspective a lot needed to be fixed in that offer for a deal that would fulfill the promises of the negotiations.

He said the Pacific did a lot of negotiating and really fought for an outcome which would hold the big distant water fishing fleets to account.

They wanted a standstill and eventual reduction in the subsidies, he said.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14.6 calls for the prohibition of certain forms of subsidies that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity, while ensuring appropriate and differential treatment for developing nations.

But Wolfenden said at the ministerial “the prohibition on those rules that were going to dictate how those subsidies would be cut was so watered down and so weak for, particularly for those countries who could meet the thresholds.”

He said at the end it was very much a case of try your best to not make these subsidies, which he calls a complete failure of the WTO mandate.

“The mandate was saying, you need to prohibit these subsidies that contribute to overfishing and over capacity. And what was on the table for the big fishing plane failed that completely.”

The Pacific plan

He said the Pacific came to the meeting with a “strong proposal to explicitly come up with a mechanism to make the subsidies for distant water fishing come to a standstill, and then reduce within a certain amount of time.”

“So they were very clear in what they were asking for and explicit that this had to have an impact on the subsidies.

“his was heavily contested by a lot of the big fishing nations, because you know, it’s very much in their interest to not have that come into effect.”

Wolfenden said the end result was a text that largely gave those big fishing nations a number of options to evade the push on subsidies.

Why is the removal of subsidies so important?

Pacific nations now earn significant amounts of money from fishing licences, so why the emphasis on removing subsidies?

He said firstly there is the matter of overfishing, so cutting subsidies would help both in terms of limiting the distant water nations ability to catch more than they’re allowed.

But he said it also opens up the prospect for Pacific countries to increase their own domestic fishing capacity.

“When you have your own boats fishing your own resources, the economic benefits to that are far greater than if you’re paying someone else or someone else is coming in taking the fish and taking it elsewhere. So, we see these subsidies play into that.

What is next for the WTO?

Auckland University emeritus law professor, Jane Kelsey, a long-time critic of the WTO, was also observing the ministerial in Abu Dhabi.

She said the lack of agreement on almost anything “follows a pattern of failures over successive ministerials. The WTO continues its steady decline, no longer just on life support but nearing death’s door.”

Kelsey said the refusal of developing countries to be steam-rolled into accepting global trade rules that fail to address their concerns was a significant feature of the meeting.

She said she hopes “the failure of yet another ministerial will generate an overdue recognition that the neoliberal agenda of the WTO is past its use-by date.”

Wolfenden said when the WTO tries to deal with issues like sustainability, fisheries or climate change, its approach seems totally focussed on creating a better business environment.

“So lowering import taxes, lowering the ability of governments to regulate services, it becomes problematic with that when sometimes these sustainability issues that they’re trying to resolve, they’re using the same tools that caused the problem, to try and solve it,” he said.

Wolfenden said the WTO faces a reckoning over this kind of ideological approach to all problems.

“Professor Kelsey is speaking to a lot of fundamental truths that I think the WTO hopes to avoid, but are becoming quite a reckoning for them,” he said.