A historic new deal on fisheries subsidies was agreed at the World Trade Organization early on 17 June at the 12th World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference (MC12) in Geneva, at WTO Headquarters.
The treaty was secured after a marathon five-day negotiation at the Conference. Australia was represented by Minister for Trade and Tourism, Senator the Hon Don Farrell, and Assistant Minister for Trade, Senator the Hon Tim Ayres.
Achieving consensus across the WTO’s 164 Members is notoriously difficult, but a partnership between Australia and Fiji, during the tough later stages of the Conference saved the outcome. Australia and Fiji worked in consultation with other Pacific Island countries represented at the Conference, including Samoa, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and Vanuatu.
Pacific Members have consistently identified a treaty to deal with the problem of fish subsidies as one of their highest priorities at the WTO.
Subsidies contribute to the problem of over-fishing, and the decline in global fish stocks is a growing problem. UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) studies have highlighted that the depletion of global fish stocks is an ongoing problem.
The treaty builds on WTO subsidy rules, to prohibit and discipline harmful subsidies.
In the last hours of the Conference, negotiators from Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat helped save the fisheries subsidies deal, insisting on its inclusion in the Conference outcomes, despite it being put in the ‘too hard basket’ by other negotiators.
To ensure the treaty worked best for the Pacific region and delivered maximum environmental benefit, negotiators also pressed for a “high ambition” provision, to tackle subsidies to long-distance fleets on the Pacific Ocean. Australia and Fiji worked together closely in the talks to insist on a treaty upgrade within four years to tackle subsidies which lead to overcapacity and overfishing. This innovative new provision will reduce overfishing on the high seas by major fishing nations with long-distance fleets, the type of fishing that is most harmful to fish stocks in the Pacific region.
The successful outcome will provide a boost both for Pacific Island economies, and for the confidence in the multilateral trading system, as the deal is the most substantial treaty negotiated at the WTO in a decade. It is also the first treaty focused on environment issues struck at the WTO, helping meet one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, on ocean sustainability.