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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced negotiations on fisheries subsidies at the World Trade Organization (WTO) onto a slow track, but negotiators are continuing to work to meet the 2020 deadline for a deal set by Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 14.6.

Negotiations on new rules for subsidies to fishing had been working to a deadline of the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference, scheduled for June 2020, but on March 12 the WTO, alongside the host, Kazakhstan, announced that it was revisiting plans for the ministerial conference in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 13, the WTO also announced that, in light of the pandemic, it was temporarily suspending meetings on its premises, a decision that has since been extended until the end of April.

Negotiators had been working intensively prior to the sudden shutdown. WTO ambassadors had asked the chair of the negotiations, Ambassador Wills of Colombia, to produce a single draft negotiating text to facilitate their discussions, and he, in turn, had asked facilitators of different topics to provide him with input for this text. The facilitators of the key substantive pillars of the negotiation; the rules for subsidies to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, for subsidies to overexploited fish stocks, and for subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, produced texts reflecting the views of WTO Members. The chair also circulated an informal paper to all Members containing ideas for a qualitative prohibition on subsidies as part of the rules on subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing. This text was scheduled for discussion at a meeting of all WTO ambassadors in the week of March 9, but this meeting was suspended when the WTO was closed to meetings that same week.

Negotiators are now working remotely on pending issues in the talks, albeit not without difficulty. During the last negotiating meeting in early March, the Least-Developed Country Members group and India submitted new proposals outlining their views on the shape of new disciplines, but there was not enough time for them to be discussed.  The chair of the negotiations suggested the proposals be discussed at a virtual meeting, but technical difficulties forced a change of tack, and members have instead provided comments on the proposals in writing.  The Africa, Caribbean and Pacific group have since indicated that the inability to meet in person is making it difficult to coordinate their position and that while they welcome the chair producing a combined text to guide the negotiations, they would only be able to discuss this text in person.  This essentially means it’s likely the chair will need to wait until the WTO reopens for meetings before he produces a text for discussion.

While the negotiations, like a lot of other international work, have been forced to slow down in light of public health measures, the deadline for a result has also shifted, likely toward the end of the year. The latest consultations with members suggest that a ministerial conference in 2021 may now be the most likely option, but also that the majority of members were still committed to finalizing a fisheries subsidies deal by the end of 2020.

“Negotiators are doing their best in difficult circumstances,” said Alice Tipping, IISD’s lead on fisheries subsidies. “What’s important is that discussions pick up with the same momentum when the WTO reopens for business, and there is every indication that they can.”  


In 2001, as part of the Doha Development Agenda, Members of the WTO established a mandate for negotiations on new rules on fisheries subsidies, including a prohibition of subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing. After many years of stop–start negotiations, the issue was given new impetus with the adoption of SDG target 14.6 and became a stand-alone negotiating item at the WTO. It is arguably the only multilateral trade negotiation where substantial progress is currently being made. Target 14.6 highlighted an additional focus for the negotiations: eliminating subsidies to IUU fishing.  Negotiators are working intensively to prepare a deal that can be agreed as soon as possible at a deadline to be determined. 

There is a lot at stake politically in these negotiations. The policy problem they are tackling is one that will require a different vision of special and differential treatment in the WTO because some of the largest fishing nations (and largest subsidizers) are developing countries.  In the context of the current crisis in multilateral trade policy-making, the negotiations are seen as a bellwether of the WTO’s usefulness as a negotiating forum and for multilateral approaches to trade policy-making. Target 14.6 is also one of the first SDG targets to come due, and failure could weaken the normative value of the 2030 Agenda.