Small states need special, differential treatment for ‘workable’ solution – CARICOM at WTO Negotiations on Fisheries Subsidies

Fishing vessels in Grenada (Photo via Grenada Government Information Service)
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While Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Member States have welcomed the progress on the Fisheries Subsidies negotiations, they have signalled that further adjustments are required, underlining the necessity for special and differential treatment (SDT) for small developing states.

SDT exemptions for small fishing nations are among the gaps that needed to be bridged towards a workable solution for the Caribbean.

CARICOM Member States actively engaged in the negotiations at the Ministerial Level Meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Trade Negotiations Committee on 15 July 2021. The WTO negotiations on fisheries subsidies have been ongoing since the issuing of Doha Ministerial mandate in 2001 and aims, among other things, to prohibit the most harmful subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing.

In preparation for the meeting, CARICOM’s Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) met in special session on 13 July 2021. The CARICOM Secretariat, the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM) and CARICOM delegations in Geneva, have been meeting regularly for several years to review progress and refine the Region’s positions in the negotiations. CARICOM continues to work as part of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group in Geneva.

On 15 July, ministers from around the world gave their views on the draft negotiating text, which had been issued by the chair of the negotiating group and pointed to both the desirable and undesirable parts of that document while declaring their support for a successful outcome of that long-running process. WTO Director General, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, described the meeting as a “long but successful day.”

The Hon. Hugh Todd, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Guyana, spoke on behalf of CARICOM at the meeting. He pointed out that it was the overwhelming subsidisation of large-scale distant water fishing nations that had created the problem of global overcapacity, overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

“It is therefore at those countries that the prohibition disciplines should be targeted,” he said, adding that those states should bear the costs for rectifying the problem.

He raised the Region’s concerns that flexibilities in the revised text were skewed to the advantage of the major, large-scale, distant water fishing nations, while those proposed for small, vulnerable economies were “inadequate to address our interests.”

“We further emphasize that our commercial fishing operations are miniscule in comparison to those of major players and do not benefit from harmful subsidies,” he added.

His position was supported by representatives of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and other CARICOM Member States who highlighted the Region’s negligible contribution to the problems of overfishing and overcapacity.

The OECS, for example, accounted for 0.013 per cent of global fish catch between 1950 and 2016, according to the Hon. Keisal Peters, Minister of State with Responsibility for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who spoke on behalf of the OECS.

The Hon. Ramon Cervantes, Minister of State, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Immigration of Belize indicated that Belize’s fishing industry was primarily artisanal and directly supported small scale fishers and the livelihood of more than 15,000 Belizeans.

“Supporting the fisheries sector is of critical importance as it contributes significantly to the socio-economic well-being of fisher folks and their families. Therefore, Belize wishes to see the proposal on de minimis be placed in the text, exempting small players that have negligibly contributed to the severely exploited marine resources,” Minister Cervantes said.

Trinidad and Tobago’s contribution to global fish catch was miniscule, accounting for less than 0.02 per cent, the Hon. Clarence Rambharat Minister of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries of Trinidad and Tobago told the meeting.

“Our country does not contribute significantly to global fish catches and our fleet is predominantly artisanal in nature with over 95% of vessels fishing in waters under national jurisdiction. Whilst the fishing may be of a commercial undertaking, in the wider global context, it is characteristically barely above subsistence level.

“Compared to other fishing nations, our subsidies and fish catches are very small, but the fisheries resources are key to the livelihood and wellbeing of our people, particularly to coastal and rural communities. Accordingly, we need more policy space than is provided in the current draft text …” he said.

Barbados also weighed in, noting that it did not engage in large-scale industrial fishing and could not be considered “by any stretch of the imagination to be a subsidizer of any significance. In fact, my country’s share of global marine capture fisheries production, in terms of metric tons, has consistently been infinitesimal. Barbados maintains its call for special and differentiation treatment, which is mandated, through an exemption for Members whose share of global marine capture fisheries production, is below a defined de minimis level within the overcapacity and overfishing section, of the agreement,” said Senator Dr. Jerome Walcott, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade of Barbados. 

Saint Lucia’s representative, Amb. Stephen Fevrier told the meeting that to unlock the progress required to conclude the negotiations, it was “vital that flexibilities be conferred on those of us that do not deploy systemically relevant subsidies.”

Minister Todd acknowledged that the negotiating text showed incremental progress on many important elements but argued that the principles of equity and fair play that CARICOM representatives had consistently advocated for needed to be reflected in the text in order to achieve “an acceptable agreement.”

The Hon. Kamina Johnson-Smith, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade of Jamaica delivered a statement on behalf of the ACP and echoed several of the points made by CARICOM ministers. The Hon. Renward Ricardo Wells, Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources spoke on behalf of The Bahamas and noted the importance of fishing to that archipelagic state’s blue economy. Among other things, he backed up CARICOM’s call for an exemption for small states so that they would be able to develop their fishing sectors, which now account for a tiny amount of global catch.

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