Improving the transparency of fisheries subsidies

by Arthur E. Appleton, 
December 2017

In this post, the author suggests different avenues and data sources to improve the transparency of fisheries subsidies. This could help bring WTO members closer to a negotiated solution, and to more sustainable exploitation of fisheries, an important step forward for all countries, and particularly for those that most depend on fishing for livelihoods, nutrition, and export earnings.

WTO members already have an obligation to notify certain subsidies under various WTO agreements. However, compliance with existing notification obligations is low, and notifications themselves are not always of good quality.

Why then should we expect WTO members to provide better notifications of fisheries subsidies pursuant to the improved disciplines under discussion in the on-going WTO fisheries subsidy negotiations? Because improved notification disciplines are in members’ own best interests.

Unlike many subsidised sectors, the situation in the fisheries sector is dire: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that approximately 90 percent of fisheries are either fully fished or overfished. In part this is due to the US$35 billion in subsidies per year it is estimated that the fisheries sector receives – US$1 for every US$5 dollars of fish products produced. Admittedly, ending fisheries subsidies may not end overfishing, but the disciplines under discussion are designed to increase transparency and help governments to assess the impact of their own, and others’ subsidies on fish stocks. This could bring us closer to a solution, and to more sustainable exploitation of fisheries, an important step forward for all WTO members, and particularly for those that most depend on fishing for livelihoods, nutrition, and export earnings.

Many of the fisheries-specific matters that members are considering for notification are already a part of regular notification requirements under the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures. The main proposals all support identifying the name and legal basis of the subsidy programme, and would have members notify the conservation and management practices they have in place. Many of the proposals call for members to identify the level of support a member provides – also an element already required for notification.

It is the new environment-related issues proposed for notification that have drawn the most member interest. They include: fleet capacity, catch data by species, and status of the fish stocks in the fishery for which the subsidy is provided; type or kind of marine fishing activity supported by subsidy programme; information on other subsidies granted to the fisheries sector (e.g. fuel subsidies); and total imports and exports by species.

There is a growing realisation among members that much of the environmental data for which notification is sought is already being collected by other organisations, in particular the FAO and the OECD. This demonstrates two important points:

(i) That data collection and notification is possible; and that

(ii) It would be valuable if WTO members and the Secretariat cooperated with the OECD, the FAO, and other relevant organisations on fisheries issues in gathering this information.

For example, an OECD report entitled Support to Fisheries: Levels and Impacts includes information on support policies to fisheries in 31 countries, including four non-OECD members. OECD.stat also provides a wide variety of fisheries-related information, including data on fisheries support estimates (FSE) as well as data on fishing fleets.

The FAO is also a rich source of fisheries data, although at present it does not deal with subsidies. For example, the FAO commissions national experts to collect data and produce fisheries profiles for 170 countries for its National Fishery Sector Overview. This data includes information on the structure of the fishing industry, its status and development prospects. In addition to these programmes, the FAO maintains data on global fleet statistics, global capture of fish, fisheries commodity and trade statistics, and data related to the global monitoring and management of marine fisheries.[1] The FAO’s FIRMS database, in particular, provides extensive data identifying fisheries, the status of fish stocks, and harvests, including species captured. In summary, the FAO already collects data on many environment-related matters proposed by WTO members for notification, including: fleet capacity; catch by species; status of fish stocks conservation and management measures, and Imports and exports by species.

The wealth of data already available means that WTO members and the Secretariat could avoid duplication of activities by collaborating with the OECD, the FAO, Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs), and FAO national experts to collect data on subsidies and fisheries whose exploitation is subsidised.

WTO members and the Secretariat could also provide additional technical assistance and financial resources to help with the collection and notification of fisheries information. This could be done, to the extent feasible, with the FAO, which is also helping UN members to improve their domestic data collection skills. Improved notifications at the WTO, and support outside the WTO for collection of fisheries data, would support the efforts of governments to meet the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

This article is derived from the Paper Options for Improving the Transparency of Fisheries Subsidies commissioned by ICTSD and authored by Arthur E. Appleton. Is it part of the E15 engagement track through research and policy dialogues on fisheries subsidies. 

Arthur E. Appleton is a Founding Partner of Appleton Luff – International Lawyers a boutique international law firm.

[1] See the presentation made by the FAO at a Knowledge-Sharing Seminar on Fisheries Subsidiesorganised by ICSTD on 16 November 2017, available at ICTSD; see also http://firms.fao.org/firms/en.

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