India fights for fuel sops for poor fishermen ahead of WTO meeting

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Geneva: India wants to provide fuel subsidies to its millions of small and resource-poor fish workers in the proposed global instrument for prohibiting subsidies to vessels engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

As members race towards negotiating an outcome for prohibiting IUU fishing ahead of the World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference in Buenos Aires next month, India along with a majority of developing and poorest countries sought an exemption in regard to IUU fishing in their exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The EEZ is a sea zone that extends for about 370km from the shore.

The US and New Zealand, among others, opposed these demands on grounds that the exemptions will make the proposed global decision for banning IUU fishing weak and ineffective. The US maintained that fuel subsidies constitute the lion’s share in the subsidies provided to vessels engaged in IUU fishing, said a trade negotiator who asked not to be quoted.

On 17 November, members concluded a week-long meeting in which India’s demands came to the centre stage during an intense phase of preparing the negotiating text. The chair for the negotiations, ambassador Wayne McCook of Jamaica, has intensified the negotiations based on a draft text that includes all the proposals from members.

India inserted specific language in the chapter covering the “Scope” of the draft decision that it “shall not apply to fuel subsidies” so as to ensure that the government’s ability to continue supporting small-scale or artisanal fish workers. “We think it is an even-handed proposal,” an Indian negotiator told the meeting, according to a participant who asked not to be named. “The question is how much sacrifice developing countries will be making if fuel subsidies are made part of the agreement (and) if members feel this should not be kept out, then developing countries will be asking for special and differential treatment,” the Indian negotiator said, according to the participant.

India’s proposal was supported by Ecuador and Venezuela. Ninety ACP (African, Caribbean, and Pacific) countries also demanded an exemption from fuel subsidies for fishing in their EEZs. The least-developed countries want specific flexibilities to continue with fuel subsidies in their EEZ waters.

The US and New Zealand, which is the coordinator for a group called the Friends of Fish, said the Indian proposal undermines an effective global instrument to prohibit IUU fishing. The US said it cannot accept a weak and low-ambition outcome.

India also introduced specific language that “the prohibition… in respect of unreported and unregulated fishing shall not apply to developing countries including least developed countries (LDCs) for fishing activities in the EEZ of the subsidizing member,” the participant said.

“India’s proposals reflect legitimate concerns,” said a negotiator from an ACP country, who asked not to be identified. “You have to create a solution that takes on board these concerns but there are others who feel that India’s demands are too broad and go beyond what is being aimed for an effective instrument to ban IUU fishing,” the ACP negotiator suggested.

Clearly, India is justified that its “fisherfolk are not swept up in a prohibition that would prevent support that is being given to them,” the negotiator argued. India’s demands stem from its defensive concerns to safeguard the interests of its artisanal fish workers while the demands raised by the ACP and poorest countries are offensive, the negotiator maintained.

Earlier, the US began an aggressive campaign against fish subsidies to primarily target China, which is seen as the major culprit in the global depletion of fish stocks because of the Chinese vessels that are found in almost every part of the world, said a negotiator from an industrialized country. The US demanded inclusion of even inland fishing in the proposed disciplines for prohibiting fish subsidies. Washington withdrew its proposal in the face of massive opposition from various countries. The US wants a stringent regime of transparency provisions and notifications from countries that provide fishery subsidies.

China says the prohibited subsidies must not apply to disputed waters but the Philippines wants disputed waters to be included. In short, there are considerable divergences among members on a range of issues but there is some light in the end of the tunnel for a modest outcome at Buenos Aires, said an African negotiator, seeking anonymity.