A Brief History & the Current Status of WTO Fisheries Subsidies Negotiations*
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A Brief History & the Current Status of WTO Fisheries Subsidies Negotiations*

By Youngjeen Cho
Department Chair Associate Professor, Graduate School of International Studies, 
Ewha Woman's University, Seoul, South Korea

Image Attribute: Vietnam Fishing by Quangpraha via Pixabay.com / Creative Commons 0

Image Attribute: Vietnam Fishing by Quangpraha via Pixabay.com / Creative Commons 0

The Doha Development Agenda (DDA) was launched in November 2001, with aims to extend market access to agricultural and non-agricultural products and services and to strengthen World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. The DDA, as is reflected in its nomenclature, concentrates on developmental dimensions of trade with an understanding that it is essential to address the needs and interests of developing countries and to contribute to their economic development. The fisheries subsidies were added to the negotiations agenda, as WTO members agreed to "aim to clarify and improve WTO disciplines on fisheries subsidies, taking into account the importance of these sectors to developing countries" [1].

Unlike other matters of the DDA negotiations, fisheries subsidies is a complicated issue, encompassing three dimensions. Firstly, it is an environmental issue. As aforementioned, fisheries subsidies were initially added to the negotiations agenda largely because of the concern for imminent depletion of fishery stocks on a global basis. And, it is undeniable that the diminishment of fishery resource base causes harm to the environment. Therefore, if fisheries subsidies contribute to over-fishing and overcapacity which result in depletion of fishery resources, it should be regulated. Secondly, it is a trade issue. Fisheries subsidies may distort market and trade of fish and fishery products, as those who receive subsidies may have an undue advantage in the marketplace. If fisheries subsidies cause such adverse effect on international trade, it should be regulated. Thirdly, it is a developmental issue. Taking into account that fishing industry is an essential sector in a large number of developing countries and least developed countries**, fisheries subsidies provided by relatively developed countries would have a negative impact on the socio-economic development of underdeveloped countries, and such subsidies should be regulated.

In fisheries subsidies negotiations, there are, by and large, three groups of countries that had strong stances in the negotiations:

First, the Friend of Fish Group members, consisting of Australia, Chile, New Zealand, the United States, to name a few, claimed that, in general, fisheries subsidies should be prohibited extensively with a limited list of exceptions. 

Second, large developing countries such as Argentina, Brazil, China, India, etc. supported the claims of Friends of Fish Group of an extensive prohibition of fisheries subsidies. However, at the same time, they requested a broad exception for developing countries, which, they argued, they are entitled to as part of the development implication of the DDA. 

Third, Japan, Korea, Chinese Taipei, the European Union, and Norway argued that not all fisheries subsidies cause over-fishing and overcapacity. And thus, they claimed, prohibition should be limited to fisheries subsidies that actually contribute to over-fishing and overcapacity and result in a decline of fishery resources. They also claimed that exceptions for developing countries should not be excessive. They were concerned that broad exceptions to large developing countries with strong fishing industries could undermine the goal to protect fishery resources.

Although little progress had been made till the Hong Kong Ministerial Conference in December 2005, and there was no breakthrough, members recalled their commitment to strengthening disciplines on fisheries subsidies [2]. They also mandated the chairman of the rules negotiating group to prepare a consolidated text which would serve as a basis for further negotiations [2]. In November 2007, the chairman circulated a consolidated text, summarizing the proposals submitted by members and discussions that had taken place [3]. After a year of negotiations based on the consolidated text, the chairman circulated a revised version of it, reflecting members' opinions and comments on the previous text [4]. However, with regard to the fisheries subsidies, unlike anti-dumping or horizontal subsidies, the chairman circulated a "roadmap" instead of a revised consolidated text which merely listed the issues that required further discussions. The chairman explained, "as the difference in members’ stances was too wide", he was unable to write a revised text. Members intensified negotiations in order to draft a revised text by April 2011, but in vain, as they failed to narrow the gaps in their positions. When the chairs of negotiating groups, including rules group, were only able to circulate an assessment of the state of negotiations instead of a revised set of texts in April 2011, Pascal Lamy, Director-General at the time cast serious doubt on the completion of the DDA by the end of the year, pointing to the fact that a clear political chasm was not bridgeable [5]. The chairman of the rules negotiations group, in particular, wrote in his report that "there is too little convergence on even the technical issues, and indeed virtually none on the core substantive issues" in fisheries subsidies [6].

The DDA negotiations had not moved forward until it made a modest progress at the Bali Ministerial Conference in December 2013. Members reconciled differences in their positions and agreed on the issues of trade facilitation, duty-free quota-free market access for least developed countries, monitoring mechanism on special and differential treatment, etc. [7]. At the Nairobi Ministerial Conference in December 2015, members reached agreements on a few more issues, including preferential rules of origin for least developed countries, [8] preferential treatment in favor of services and services suppliers of least developed countries, [9] etc. In addition, in October 2015, a final version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement was drafted. After seven years of negotiations, and it was signed in February 2016.4 It contains regulations on fisheries subsidies in its environment chapter which solidified members’ strong commitment to protect and conserve natural resources. This has inspired somewhat optimistic anticipation that another early harvest could be made at the Buenos Aires Ministerial Conference in December 2017, and fisheries subsidies are the area where progress would be made, as disciplines on fisheries subsidies in the TPP may help unlock the talks in the DDA negotiations. In fact, 28 WTO members jointly circulated a ministerial statement on December 19, 2015, during the Nairobi Ministerial Conference, in which they committed to securing a ban on fisheries subsidies that negatively affect over-fished fish stocks as well as subsidies to vessels engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing [10]. 

In 2016 and 2017, the European Union [11], Iceland, New Zealand, and Pakistan [12], Argentina, Columbia, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru and Uruguay [13], Indonesia [14], Norway [15], African Caribbean Pacific Group [16], and Least Developed Countries Group [17] submitted textual proposals. And, on July 29, 2017, the chairman of the rules negotiations group circulated a compilation matrix of textual proposals drafted on the basis of these seven proposals [18]. It is clear that fisheries subsidies have re-emerged as a critical issue.


[1] WTO (2001). Ministerial Declaration. WT/MIN(01)/DEC/1, November 20.  

[2] WTO (2005). Doha Work Programme. Ministerial Declaration, WT/MIN(05)/DEC, December 22. 

[3] WTO (2007). Draft Consolidated Chair Text of the AD and SCM Agreements. TN/RL/W/213, November 30. 

[4] WTO (2008). New Draft Consolidated Chair Text of the AD and SCM Agreements. TN/RL/W/236, December 19.

[5]. WTO (2011a). Cover Note by Chair. TN/C/13, April 21.  

[6]. WTO (2011b). Communication from the Chairman. TN/R/W/254, April 21.

[7]. WTO (2013). Bali Ministerial Declaration. WT/MIN(13)/DEC, December 11.

[8]. WTO (2015a). Preferential Rules of Origin for Least Developed Countries. Ministerial Decision of 19 December 2015, WT/MIN(11)/47, December 21.

[9] WTO (2015b). Implementation of Preferential Treatment in Favor of Services and Services Suppliers of Least Developed countries and Increasing Least Developed Countries’ Participation in Services Trade. Ministerial Decision of 19 December 2015, WT/MIN(11)/48, December 21.

[10]. WTO (2016). Fisheries Subsidies. WT/MIN(15)/37/Rev.1, January 7.

[11]. WTO (2017a). Advancing toward a Multilateral Outcome on Fisheries Subsidies in the WTO—European Union. TN/RL/GEN/181/Rev.1, July 6.

[12]. WTO (2017b). Proposed MC11 Fisheries Subsidies Disciplines: Implementing SDG Target 14.6—Communication from Iceland, New Zealand, and Pakistan. TN/RL/GEN/186, April 27.

[13]. WTO (2017c). Proposal for Disciplines on Fisheries Subsidies—Communication from Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay.

[14]. WTO (2017d). Proposed Disciplines on Prohibitions and Special and Differential Treatment for Fisheries Subsidies—Proposal from Indonesia.

[15]. WTO (2017e). Discipline and Prohibition on Subsidies to IUU Fishing—Communication by Norway.

[16] WTO (2017f). ACP Group Text Proposal—Fisheries Subsidies Disciplines—Submission by Guyana on Behalf of the ACP Group.

[17]. WTO (2017g). LDC Group Fisheries Subsidies Text Proposal—Submission by Cambodia on Behalf of the LDC Group.

[18]. WTO (2017h). Fisheries Subsidies, Compilation Matrix of Textual Proposals Received to Date.


*. The earlier version of section II is included in relevant sections of Revisiting WTO Fisheries Subsidies Negotiations, Beijing Law Review, 6(1), January 2015, and Revisiting the WTO DDA Negotiations: Analysis of its Current Impasse, International Studies Review, 14(2), December 2013.

**. At the Doha Ministerial Conference, members agreed to "aim to clarify and improve WTO disciplines on fisheries subsidies, taking into account the importance of this sector to developing countries".

Publication Details:

This article is an excerpt taken from a research paper, titled -"The Concept of “Developing Countries” in the Context of the WTO Fisheries Subsidies Negotiation" published by the author at Beijing Law Review [Vol.9 No.2(2018), Paper ID 84289, 16 pages, 137-152. DOI: 10.4236/blr.2018.92010]. The original work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution International License (CC BY 4.0).