When the World Trade Organization (WTO) opened negotiations on Monday in Buenos Aires to ban government subsidies that have contributed to the decimation of global fish stocks, observers had high hopes that action would finally be taken after nearly 20 years of discussion.
Only a day later, though, it was clear that some countries were not biting on a draft proposal to prohibit subsidies that promote overfishing and illegal fishing. By the time trade ministers from the 164 member nations of the WTO had ended their biennial meeting on Wednesday, no agreement had been reached – despite a 2020 deadline to prohibit fisheries subsidies to achieve a United Nations “Sustainable Development Goal” to promote ocean health. Nearly 90 percent of all commercial fish stocks are fully exploited or overexploited, and a third are being fished at unsustainable levels, according to the U.N.
Instead, the WTO punted fisheries subsidies to its next meeting in 2019. “Members agree to continue to engage constructively in the fisheries subsidies negotiations,” the organization said in a statement issued on Wednesday, “with a view to adopting … an agreement on comprehensive and effective disciplines that prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to” illegal fishing.
European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom called the failure to reach an accord banning fisheries subsidies “horrendous.”
Writing on Twitter on Wednesday, she said, “Members cannot even agree to stop subsidizing illegal fishing.” She added, “The E.U. tried really hard, but destructive behaviour by several large countries made results impossible. How did we end up here?”
At the @WTO #MC11 meeting, members cannot even agree to stop subsidizing illegal fishing. Horrendous. The EU tried really hard, but destructive behaviour by several large countries made results impossible. How did we end up here?
— Cecilia Malmström (@MalmstromEU) December 13, 2017
In short, India. Observers in Buenos Aires laid the blame on that country for torpedoing what had appeared to be a growing consensus to at least ban subsidies for vessels and fleets engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
“India blocked everything, even an agreement on the elimination of subsidies that drive illegal fishing,” Claire Nouvian, chief executive of BLOOM, a Paris-based ocean conservancy nonprofit, said in a statement.
The country had sought an exemption from a proposed ban on subsidies that promote illegal fishing, arguing it would unfairly harm its small fishing fleets.
“The collapse of WTO negotiations will inevitably have a boomerang effect on small-scale fishers, not just in India, but around the world,” Nouvian added.
Small fisheries are a key source of jobs and food in developing countries – in the Philippines, for instance, local fishers comprise 85 percent of the industry and supply the country with 56 percent of its protein, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Globally, fish provide 20 percent of the world’s protein while island nations and regions in Asia and Africa rely on the sea for half of such sustenance.
Yet a study published in June found that industrial fishing fleets receive 90 percent of government subsidies designed to expand their size and reach, which researchers say results in overfishing. Small-scale fishers, on the other hand, garner only 16 percent of the $27-35 billion in total fisheries subsidies handed out globally each year.
WTO agreements must be reached by consensus, which gave India the ability to single-handedly bring negotiations to a halt.
India, however, wasn’t the only country standing in the way of an accord in Buenos Aires. BLOOM identified the United States, Russia, China and South Korea as posing obstacles to reaching a comprehensive ban on harmful fisheries subsidies.
The U.S. has historically taken a leadership role at WTO meetings, promoting consensus to reach global trade deals. The Trump administration, however, set a different tone at the Buenos Aires meeting when, at the opening of the conference, U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer criticized the WTO as “a litigation-centered organization.”
In the end, no agreements were reached in Buenos Aires across a range of issues, including agriculture, e-commerce and investment.
“We knew that progress here would require a leap in members’ positions,” WTO director general Roberto Azevedo said at the conclusion of the meeting, according to Bloomberg. “We didn’t see that.”