For years, discussions on disciplining subsidies to fisheries have been ongoing at the WTO. For many observers, this has become a test case whether WTO members can still reach an agreement and whether the institution can move ahead. This blogpost discusses how some ideas developed in GED Publications can help to enforce an agreement on fisheries.

The subsidies governments provide to fishing fleets present a challenge to sustainable development because they often make fishing more profitable than it would otherwise be and can undermine efforts to keep catch at sustainable levels.  Negotiations on the issue at the WTO have been going for many years. Momentum in the negotiations increased in 2015 when a UN Member States included the issue in the Sustainable Development Goals.

SDG Target 14.6 sets a deadline of 2020 for WTO Members to reach agreement to “prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing, and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiation.”  WTO Members are now working intensively to complete these negotiations by the next WTO Ministerial Conference in June 2020.

A key element in the design of the new agreement is new obligations of transparency about the subsidies members provide, and how these relate to the economic and environmental conditions of subsidized fishing.

A further key element is how the new obligations will be reviewed and monitored. This presentation by Robert Wolfe based his work in our WTO reform project draws lessons from his experiences in the WTO review process and provides concrete suggestions on how best the notification and monitoring of new fisheries subsidies rules could be designed.  He suggests that:


  1. Review and monitoring of fisheries’ subsidies at the WTO could support domestic reform by helping members learn about their own measures and those of other members.
  2. Members could include in the new agreement a process similar to the discussion of “specific trade concerns” in other WTO committees, which helps to clarify policy measures members are taking, and defuse potential conflicts.
  3. Members could also consider whether they want to establish a separate committee to house discussion of fisheries subsidies at the WTO, to enable useful technical discussion by capital-based experts of members’ measures and implementation of the new agreement.

Next week, negotiators on fisheries subsidies are going to meet again in Geneva. This is an important moment, not only for fish but for the organisation as a whole. If fisheries as a test case for WTO fails, it will be difficult to get political buy-in for other reform topics.