WTO’s fisheries-subsidies curbs need balance

By: |
November 05, 2021 3:00 AM

India is right, developing nations that don’t do distant-water fishing must not be clubbed with rich nations that do

Declining, if not collapsing, stocks endanger coastal communities depending on fishing in the developing world.Declining, if not collapsing, stocks endanger coastal communities depending on fishing in the developing world.

Ahead of the 12th ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva, India is rightly seeking amendments to the draft text on fisheries subsidies to bring greater balance and fairness to the agreement. Talks among WTO members are in a crucial phase to secure a clean text to eliminate subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and to prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing. Fisheries subsidies, amounting to an estimated $34.5 billion, contributed to over-exploitation of 34% of the global stocks of fish. Declining, if not collapsing, stocks endanger coastal communities depending on fishing in the developing world.

India’s concerns—as articulated by Union commerce and industries minister Piyush Goyal—are that irrational subsidies and overfishing by many countries is hurting Indian fishermen and their livelihoods. To bring the right balance to the draft text, it is therefore essential that big subsidy providers who provide massive state funding for distant-water fishing that lower cost of fuel and vessel construction—such as Japan, Spain, China, South Korea, the US, among others—assume greater responsibility on reducing their subsidies and fishing capacities in accordance with the principles of “polluter pays”. These subsidies to distant-water fishing fleets have contributed to overfishing according to an open letter to the WTO written by scientists in Science.

For a fairer agreement, there is a need to also incorporate the principle of “common and differentiated” responsibilities. These global fisheries subsidies threaten low-income countries that depend on fish for food sovereignty, according to the open letter. India will oppose any moves to end subsidies for fishermen in developing nations. Differentiated treatment entails protecting livelihoods of poor fishermen and also addressing food security concerns. India’s stance accordingly is that the WTO agreement must provide the developing world the policy space for developing the fisheries sector and a longer transition period to phase out subsidies. Current and future fishing needs of the developing world must be factored into the draft text.

India’s specific problems with the draft text are not with respect to the special and differentiated treatment given to small-scale fishermen who fish for subsistence. In fact, one of the provisions states that subsidies granted or maintained by developing country members, including LDC members, for low income, resource-poor and livelihood fishing or fishing related activities up to 12 nautical miles measured from the baselines shall be exempt. The issue is more with the attempt to put a timeline to subsidies granted or maintained by developing country members, including LDC members, for fishing or fishing related activities within their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), who will have their exemptions withdrawn after a few years. Such a timeline restricts India’s blue economy initiatives to sustainably develop its fishing sector. India seeks to exploit its EEZ by developing its capabilities in deep sea fishing. For such reasons, India has told the WTO that developing countries that are not engaged in distant-water fishing be exempted from subsidy prohibitions for 25 years, taking into account their development needs, while developed nations should scrap their fisheries subsidies well within that period. India’s concerns clearly need to be taken on board for a more balanced and equitable WTO agreement on reducing global fisheries subsidies.

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