India at WTO Meeting: Balancing the Protection of Local Fishermen with the Development of the Fishing Sector

India is likely to advocate for securing the interests of its artisanal fishers while facilitating the growth of the fishing sector at the World Trade Organisation’s 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13) in Abu Dhabi later this month.

At the MC13, scheduled from February 26 to February 29, world leaders will negotiate on regulating fisheries subsidies that contribute to excessive fishing effort and capacity. Such subsidies include support for vessel construction, acquisition and modernisation, purchasing machines and fishing equipment and purchasing fuel, etc.

They also include insurance, income support, price support for fish caught, support to cover operating losses and support targeting fishing beyond the subsidising member’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

In December 2023, the World Trade Organisation chair released an explanatory note on the draft text to curb subsidies contributing to overcapacity and overfishing, in which it proposed that member countries would have to demonstrate sustainability considerations for the fish stock on which subsidies were offered.

The note specifies that the 20 largest providers of subsidies would be subject to the strictest scrutiny, while least-developed country members and developing country members with a global share of marine catch not greater than 0.8% (de minimis) would be excluded from the core prohibition on subsidies.

Countries not falling into either of the other groups would have to demonstrate fulfilling the sustainability-based conditions outlined in the draft text, in their regular notifications of fisheries subsidies.

Experts that Mongabay India spoke to say that the existing terms and conditions and proposal outlined in the explanatory note seem to restrict unwarranted subsidies, but favours countries with large industrial fishing fleets.

Most developed countries with large industrial fishing fleets are likely to have a regulatory regime that can meet the World Trade Organisation’s requirement of sustainable fishing and can continue to provide the prohibited subsidies, Abhijit Das, the former head of the Centre for WTO Studies, told Mongabay India.

On the other hand, developing countries will face difficulties in demonstrating that they are engaged in sustainable fishing. This not on the grounds that developing countries are fishing unsustainably, but mainly due the difficulties in complying with onerous documentation and other requirements to establish sustainable fishing.

The net result will be that developing countries like India, which do not have a large industrial fishing fleet, will never be able to create a large industrial fishing fleet in the absence of any government support, he says adding that developed countries having existing large industrial fishing fleets have created this by building on government subsidies in the past.

Talking to Mongabay India, Das says, “India has been articulating that since this (the fisheries subsidies agreement) is an environmental agreement, the principle of common but differentiated and respective capabilities must be followed. India has also been strongly arguing that there must be strong disciplines on industrial fishing fleets – these have historically been the cause of overfishing.”

The way the negotiations are proceeding so far, he says, India’s stance has got support from a handful of countries.

He adds that developing countries are divided into two groups, members with a global share of marine catch not greater than 0.8% and others. As the prohibition on fisheries subsidies are not likely to apply to the former category of countries, this group has not been vocal in seeking disciplines on countries with large industrial fishing fleets.

Former negotiator for the Government of India on fisheries subsidies, Mukesh Bhatnagar, states that India’s stance is that the current proposal of the ongoing World Trade Organisation agreement towards sustainable fishing, including the explanatory note, is still quite weak. There should be a stronger commitment towards sustainable fisheries from those who have offered huge subsidies in the past, especially from those countries that fish in distant waters, says Bhatnagar.

Furthermore, India is pushing for a 25-year transition period for developing countries that are neither covered by the de minimis (a global share of marine catch not greater than 0.8%), nor considered least developed countries.

India argues that these developing countries should have a sufficient transition period to address their development needs, maintain policy space, ensure their fisherworkers’ livelihoods and address food security concerns.

“Approximately four million fishermen are directly engaged in fisheries, and if you consider indirect employment, the number rises to around nine million. Their livelihoods are crucial for the country, and they should not be deprived of the small subsidies they receive. It would be preferable to extend the water exception to the Exclusive Economic Zone instead of restricting it to only 12 nautical miles. I believe India is also advocating for this extension,” Bhatnagar told Mongabay India.

Source: Scroll