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WTO Fisheries Subsidies Undermining Pacific Sovereignty, Food Security And Livelihood

This week members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) will be meeting to discuss rules for curbing fisheries subsidies that, if currently accepted, will undermine the sovereignity and control of Pacific ocean resources by Pacific Island Countries. An outcome like what is being proposed by the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and others will benefit those countries that have already built their fleet capacities, giving them an advantage in accessing the fisheries of other resource-holding countries like the Pacific Island to the detriment of their domestic industries.

Fisheries Sector for the Pacific

Fisheries are crucially important in the Pacific both for governments and communities. In the Pacific Islands fishing provides 40-80% of animal protein intake in urban centres and 50-90% in rural areas, with most of the fish eaten by rural people coming from subsistence fishing. Fisheries is also a key economic driver of developing country economies with fish and fish-related products generating a higher export value than coffee, bananas, cocoa, tea, sugar and tobacco combined. In 2016 government revenue from fisheries access agreements for Pacific Island members of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) was approximately US$400million, a huge increase from US$60million in 2011.

The WTO Negotiations

The negotiations in the WTO were given new impetus from the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly 14.6 that called for, by 2020, the elimination of subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and prohibit certain forms of subsidies that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity whilst ensuring appropriate and effective Special and Differential Treatment (SDT).

The current texts in the WTO that aim to meet the goals of SDG14.6 are prioritising the elimination of subsidies without properly providing flexibilities for developing countries as set out under the special and differential treatment. We are seeing the developed nations like Australia, New Zealand, the European Union and America in particular, are pushing for an ambitious outcome on cutting the types of fleet building subsidies that they have phased out while undermining the ability of developing countries to have the same opportunities to develop their domestic fleets. Many Pacific Island Countries, such as Fiji, have an ambition in their national development plans to boost the fisheries sector by domesticating their fishing vessels. The current text pushes for prohibition of subsidies for capital and operational costs which includes for boat building, joint ventures and others. As such, hampering the policy space for Pacific Island countries to take ownership for expansion of their fisheries sector.

The proposals further state that subsidies will be disciplined in the Economic Exclusion Zones (EEZ) of developing countries, the 200 nautical mile zone. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), coastal states have the right to manage their fisheries resources up to 200 nautical miles which is their EEZs. The current chairs text of the fisheries subsidies negotiations however requires members to give up this sovereign rights over the EEZ to manage their fisheries resources. In doing so, Pacific countries not only are at a major disadvantage but are further giving up rights to marine biodiversity in the EEZ.

It is crucial to understand that this sovereign right was of member countries for the EEZ was fought for in the UN, which already contains requirements to ensure sustainability and supports developing countries to benefit from the marine resources that exist within them. Further to this is the concern that once the principle is undermined in the WTO it will weaken it in all areas of marine resources both in and under the sea.

While only six Pacific Island Countries (PNG, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa, and Tonga) are members of the WTO, the fallout from a bad deal will extend to the non-WTO Pacific island members including PNA countries. The incorporation of proposals that invite into the WTO decisions on whether or not conservation and management measures are appropriate risks having a body without sufficient expertise making such determinations. This will impact the mechanisms at national levels but also within Regional Fisheries Management Organisations as there will be a push to adopt an internationally standard approach. For those non-WTO members this can result in them having to conform to an outcome that they had no say in negotiating. Furthermore, RFMOs provide the Forum for fishing nations to negotiate conservation and management measures for fisheries, agreeing on a set of rules is a shift of institutional powers from RFMOs to WTO, which does not have expertise in fisheries resource management.

The impacts that the current text will have on the sovereignty and resources of developing countries highlights the intent of those making the proposals. Protecting and conserving marine life is a complex undertaking with fisheries subsidies being only one aspect of that, yet under the guise of stopping subsidies the WTO is making a claim on the management measures and sovereign rights of members. This is more important for developing countries as they tend to be the nations that haven't overfished their waters and as such still hold the resources, getting access to those resources for the nations who have the fishing capacity appears to be the real goal of the developed nations in these talks.

The negotiations on 'special and differential treatment' are not enough for the Pacific. The current 2020 Chairs text does not uphold the existing rights of Pacific Island Countries and in some cases any exclusion of a nations waters are only temporary concessions. This also comes with insufficient provision of technical assistance and capacity building for developing countries. This is failing the SDT component of the UN mandate of SDG 14.6 and will jeopardize the ability of developing countries to develop domestic fishing industries by locking them out, further entrenching the existing advantages enjoyed by developed nation fleets. Under international fisheries agreements such as UNCLOS, developing countries including small island states have the provision of special requirements for developing countries on technical and financial assistance that countries need to develop their sector and manage the resources.

Conceding on the right of nations to their sovereign space goes far beyond the mandate of the negotiations and one imagines was not the outcome that Leaders envisioned when agreeing to this particular Sustainable Development Goal. Those Pacific Island WTO members need to ensure that their sovereign right to manage their EEZ is carved out and maintained. It is a right that is already enshrined in UNCLOS and as such must not be negotiated. Furthermore, the Pacific region which holds one of the worlds’ largest aggregate exclusive economic zone areas must ensure that it also has the flexibility to domesticate its fisheries sector and develop the fisheries resources. It is currently not the case in the most recent text.

The talks this week are the next step in a dramatic push to finalise an outcome by the end of the year. The drive for an outcome is prioritising conclusion over content and ignores the reality that COVID-19 has brought upon developing countries and their limited resources.

Upholding the rights of nations to their EEZ doesn't undermine activities to conserve fisheries or the goal of the SDG. Left as it is this text will undermine development and food security within developing countries, undermining the resource holders and ultimately securing the advantage of those who have already subsidised and built their fleet capacities. All Pacific Island Countries will be impacted by these negotiations and they must act to protect their sovereign rights now and in the future. The Pacific must learn from the experience of developing countries of the WTO that are facing major issues by removing subsidies in Agriculture. The adverse effect of which has not been resolved to date. As such the stake of committing to fisheries subsidies disciplines and giving sovereign rights over the EEZ, will have long-term negative repercussions to the food security and livelihood of many.

Adam Wolfenden is the Trade Justice Campaigner for the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG), a regional watchdog promoting Pacific peoples’ right to be self-determining.

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