Small-scale fisheries and WTO subsidies disciplines

by Rashid Sumaila, 
December 2017

In this post, the author introduces a method that provides a universal yet flexible approach to determining the “degree of small-scaleness” of a fishery. This approach could serve as a basis for WTO negotiations on disciplining fisheries subsidies.

Small-scale fishing plays a crucial role in supporting livelihoods as well as food and nutritional security in communities around the world. For this reason, they are an important consideration in the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations on new rules on subsidies for fishing. Several proposals suggest that some kinds of subsidies that would be otherwise prohibited – such as those to capital or operating costs – should continue to be provided to small-scale fishing of different kinds.

The main difficulty negotiators face is how to define small-scale fisheries. The ideal would be to have a universally accepted definition that applies to all countries, but this is virtually impossible because the sector is very diverse and dynamic. Some proposals on the table include definitions of small-scale fishing, differentiating them by geographic location or the gear used, for example. Negotiators have also considered adopting national definitions, but this approach means governments could (legitimately) choose to include activity of considerable scale in their national definitions. A wide degree of flexibility could potentially undermine the effectiveness of an agreement in supporting the reform of subsidies.

Negotiators face a dilemma: a common definition would be difficult for countries to accept as it may not capture the place and community aspects of their fisheries. Adopt national definitions and you may end up with potentially very wide exceptions that could reduce the effectiveness of subsidies disciplines.

So, what to do?

Darah Gibson and I have proposed a method that provides a universal yet flexible approach to determining the “degree of small-scaleness” of a fishery. The approach consists of the following steps: (i) identify features or characteristics associated with SSF that are widely accepted by academics and practitioners; (ii) determine how many fisheries are active in the country or region to be studied; (iii) run all the fisheries identified through the features and characteristics of small-scale fisheries to determine whether or not they have a given feature or not, and give a score of, for example, 1 if it has the feature or 0 otherwise; (iv) add up the scores for each fishery to obtain the total score, which is then an indicator of “small-scaleness.” Achieving a total maximum score implies the fishery in question is as small-scale as possible, while a score of 0 implies the opposite. Scores between 0 and the maximum depict the degree of “small-scaleness.”

One particular advantage of this method is that it can be applied at different scales – e.g. countries or regions within countries – and allows for the fact that gear that is large-scale in one political entity may be categorised as small-scale in another. Even though no approach has universal acceptance, there are features of small-scale fisheries that are widely accepted by practitioners and therefore could, serve as a basis for determining the “degree of small-scaleness” of fisheries worldwide. These are set out in Table 1.

Table 1: List of common features of small-scale fisheries

Source: Gibson, D. and Sumaila, U.R. 2017. Determining the Degree of ‘Small-Scaleness’ Using Fisheries in British Columbia as an Example. Marine Policy 86, 121-126.

* Labour intensity is used in qualitative terms and is not a quantitative measure of labour in proportion to capital required for fishing.

If there were agreement that some flexibility should be provided for WTO members to continue to subsidise small-scale fisheries, negotiators could consider referencing national definitions that can capture the differences in small-scale fisheries found in different countries, but also include reference in the agreement to an illustrative list of features that are commonly accepted for small-scale fisheries, such as the features in Table 1.

Negotiators could also consider requiring notification of the subsidies provided to the small-scale sector, along with the national definition of what is small-scale, to the WTO Subsidies and Countervailing Measures Committee. This transparency could help to prevent the exception from being interpreted overly broadly.

This article is derived from the information note Small-scale Fisheries and Subsidies Disciplines: Definitions, Catches, Revenues, and Subsidies commissioned by ICTSD and authored by U. Rashid Sumaila. It is part of the E15 Initiative engagement track on fisheries subsidies conducted through research and policy dialogues . 

U. Rashid Sumaila is Professor and Director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre.

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