WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Colombian Ambassador to the WTO Santiago Wills at the Stop Funding Overfishing display outside the World Trade Organization headquarters in 2021.
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A Global Deal to Tackle Harmful Fisheries Subsidies: A look behind the scenes

In June 2022, World Trade Organization members reached a historic deal tackling harmful fisheries subsidies. We unpack how a global campaign by environmental non-governmental organizations and technical policy and legal advice from trade experts in Geneva helped make a difference.

By Paulina Resich on December 6, 2022

"This agreement is a truly remarkable achievement. I'll explain why once I've had some sleep!" tweeted Alice Tipping at 4 a.m. on June 17, 2022, from the lakeside premises of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland.

That day, after over 20 years of negotiations, a deal to curb harmful fisheries subsidies was finally agreed between the WTO’s 164 members. It marked the first multilateral trade deal to have environmental sustainability at its core, and only the second major trade deal across the organization’s entire membership since the global trade body opened its doors in January 1995. 

Behind Closed Doors

A couple of hours earlier, IISD's Lead on Fisheries Subsidies and Sustainable Trade and her team of policy advisors were sitting outside the closed doors of the WTO meeting rooms where final decisions were being taken, hoping that the last suggestions they had given that night would tip the balance. The conference had already run well over its scheduled time, and whether trade negotiators could clinch both this trade deal and reach outcomes on other key issues like food security and public health remained an open question.

International rules to tackle harmful fisheries subsidies have been under negotiation since late 2001, when the WTO's members launched the Doha Round of trade talks to overhaul the institution’s rulebook. By then, the role of subsidies in depleting marine fish stocks was becoming increasingly apparent, with overfished stocks having almost tripled globally since 1970. In 2015, United Nations member states included a dedicated target on prohibiting harmful fisheries subsidies within the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Eliminating subsidies that increase fishing capacity and contribute to overfishing was critical to protecting life below water, with one-third of the world’s fish populations already overfished.

Alice Tipping started her work on this agreement in 2008 as a trade negotiator for New Zealand's government. When I asked her why she decided to move from a government position to an independent policy advisor function, she said: "Negotiating for my country was very satisfying, but I was conscious that all I could ever do or say was within the bounds of my country's position. Stepping outside the foreign service and working for a research organization enabled me to look at the issue objectively and to speak from a completely impartial perspective." 

When Alice left the New Zealand foreign service to work at Geneva-based think tanks, the doors to the negotiating room closed for her. But as an independent advisor who was on the side of the issue rather than on the side of a particular position, she had a different kind of influence on the actual negotiation process. 

Building Trust

Her first job was to convince funders of her vision and start building a team of experts working full-time on supporting negotiations toward a fisheries subsidies agreement at the WTO. In her pitch to donors, she was frank: "I cannot promise you an agreement because it's out of our control. But what I can offer is the best possible research and policy program with the best chances of success at getting you an agreement."

"How did you and your colleagues at Pew know if Alice and her team were the ones to bet on?" I asked Isabel Jarrett, senior manager at The Pew Charitable Trusts, a non-profit organization that has been supporting IISD’s work on fisheries subsidies for over 4 years.

"It was clear to us that Alice and her team were a point of reference for this work in Geneva,” Jarrett said. “The way they stood out was the trust that they built with members and their exceptional reputation as independent advisors."

Isabel knew that these relationships would be critical when it came to making the tough political and technical decisions. The Pew team also took a very hands-on engagement approach. Instead of counting deliverables, Pew was present in the negotiations, with its own—distinct—perspective and set of advocacy objectives. While IISD focused on providing impartial technical support to the negotiations, Pew advocated for an agreement that was high on environmental ambition.  The two teams worked together closely to ensure Pew's advocacy work and IISD's technical work came together. 

"It made a huge difference," recalled Tristan Irschlinger, an IISD policy advisor working on fisheries subsidies and sustainable trade with Tipping. "We were not working for themwe were working alongside them."

Civil Society Joins the Cause

By early 2019, the team started feeling the pressure of a ticking clock. The wording of SDG target 14.6 called on WTO members to clinch a deal by the end of 2020 to set legally binding rules on harmful fisheries subsidies, and to have ended subsidies to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing outright. Yet the negotiations did not seem to be moving forward quickly enough to meet that deadline. There was also a long history of missed negotiating deadlines, given that the full Doha Round was meant to have been delivered in 2005. 

The Pew and IISD teams were working hard to provide evidence and analysis to support the process, but there seemed to be one element missing to push things forwardexternal pressure.

When I joined IISD as a communications officer in 2019, the idea of supporting the delivery of Pew's campaign and public engagement strategy to bridge the environmental and trade communities—while ensuring that IISD's policy advisors could remain neutral when working with WTO negotiators—looked like an impossibly tall order. The environmental community had, by and large, lost faith in the possibility that public pressure on the WTO could lead to real outcomes, and trade negotiators had been burned in the past by activism efforts gone awry.

Yet with something this important, we decided that we had to give it a try, while taking into account the lessons from the past. Our communications team sat together with communications colleagues from Pew, discussing different options of engagement, and decided to build the Stop Funding Overfishing campaign around this simple statement: "We urge world leaders to deliver on their mandate to reach a meaningful agreement to stop (…) harmful [fisheries] subsidies as soon as possible."

We tested the campaign's output and tone with our policy experts, who made sure every word was accurate, and that the message was a positive one to elicit the best possible response from members of the WTO. No naming and shaming. No criticism. Our goal was to unite different organizations across the world around one message and build a strong coalition supporting the process, thus showing WTO members that they had the public support they needed to make tough decisions in the negotiating room.

"At first, we identified NGOs working on similar topics and reached out to them one by one using our existing relationships and networks," said Reyna Gilbert, Principal Associate at The Pew Charitable Trusts. "We repeated the same action until we collected over 100 signatures. From that point, NGOs had begun to approach us to sign the statement based on word of mouth. The final count grew to 182 signatories based on the growing visibility of the coalition and the support from our existing signatories as they spread the word to their networks."

The campaign gathered steam as top influencing organizations joined on, including the World Wildlife Fund, Oceana, and the Friends of Ocean Action, the latter of which is convened by the World Economic Forum with the support of the World Resources Institute. In November 2020, just before the deadline of SDG target 14.6, we had more than 20 influencers supporting the campaign. These included leading voices from the scientific community, representatives from the private sector, celebrities, environmental activists, youth, and coastal communities directly impacted by overfishing. As the campaign kept growing, we continued to repeat the same exercise we undertook at the very beginningtesting our message among those who worked within the WTO negotiations to make sure the campaign was not losing touch with what was happening on the inside.

Despite this massive mobilization, by December 15, 2020, it was clear that the 2020 deadline would be missed. To recognize the progress made so far and to keep the momentum alive, members of the Stop Funding Overfishing coalition tweeted: “WTO, you missed the deadline, but you’re getting closer.” All eyes then turned to the WTO's Twelfth Ministerial Conference in the hopes that members could strike a deal there.

All Eyes on You, WTO!

The COVID-19 pandemic led to multiple postponements of the WTO's Twelfth WTO Ministerial Conference, known to trade experts as MC12. Originally set for June 2020 in Kazakhstan, it was rescheduled for December 2021, only for the emergence of the Omicron variant to scupper those plans at the eleventh hour. At last, trade ministers were able to convene in June 2022 in Geneva at WTO headquarters.

At that stage, while an advanced version of a draft negotiating text was ready for trade ministers to consider, it wasn't at all certain whether WTO members could bridge the remaining gaps and get the deal over the finish line. The goal of the Stop Funding Overfishing campaign was simple: to continually remind members that they had the support of organizations and individuals the world over, especially as the ministerial meeting finally approached and stakes grew higher. The campaign reinforced that message every single day, from delegates' arrival at the Geneva airport through to the end of the conference.

When delegates and ministers landed in Geneva, they were greeted at baggage claim with massive banners displaying the message  "All eyes on you, WTO! End the subsidies that drive overfishing."

The Stop Funding Overfishing coalition made sure this message would stay with delegations as they left the airport and got settled into their accommodation. Throughout the city, from buses to trams to displays outside the Palais des Nations, just up the road from WTO headquarters, there were reminders to ministers of the crucial task in front of them: to "Stop Funding Overfishing."

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Colombian Ambassador to the WTO Santiago Wills at the Stop Funding Overfishing display outside the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 8, 2022.
WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and then-Colombian Ambassador to the WTO Santiago Wills at the Stop Funding Overfishing display at Place des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 8, 2022.

"And so, it begins," thought Tristan Irschlinger, getting on the Léman Express train to take him directly to the WTO from his apartment near Lancy-Bachet railway station. The next 3 days would determine whether all that time and all that work done by government officials, influencers, and policy advisors like himself had been worth it.

Between 2019 and 2022, the IISD fisheries team took on over 100 activities, including 14 reports, 67 events, 2 videos, and countless exchanges with WTO members. As a small team, never more than four people, they focused squarely on prioritizing activities that would make a constructive difference in the negotiations, and on adapting how they worked to the phase, even the mood, of the negotiations. They also, over the years, made sure WTO members knew the members of the team and how to reach them if their advice was needed. Those networks of trust paid off big time during the hectic hours of MC12.

Every issue on the conference’s agenda had to go through various exchanges and consultations with ministers before finally being ready for approval in the so-called Green Rooman ongoing meeting at the centre of MC12 including major interests and positions among the entire WTO membership. After that, it went back to the full membership for approval. The problem was that among many different topics on the MC12 agenda, from public health to food security, the issue of fisheries subsidies was not always the priority.

"The group met to consider fish early in the weekthen nothing happened. Then they met once on Wednesday, when the conference was scheduled to endstill no progress," recalled Tipping. "When it got to Thursday night, there was a proposal on the table, but it wasn't clear that everyone would agree to it until the very last moment."

Tough Decisions

In the early hours of Friday morning, when the ministerial conference was finally gavelled to a close, it was clear that a lot had been achieved. It was also clear many people were disappointed with the changes in the text that had been made, and the rules that had been left out, to make the fisheries subsidies deal happen.

When MC12 began, a draft agreement on fisheries subsidies was on the table, yet there were still complicated rules and exceptions on which members were divided. Tough decisions loomed.

The rules on subsidies to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and to fishing of overfished stocks, while slightly changed, remained in the final text of the agreement in Articles 3 and 4.

It was Article 5, with its wide-ranging prohibition on subsidies contributing to overcapacity and overfishing and complicated set of exceptions, that left the negotiations on tenterhooks for the bulk of the ministerial conference. To clinch the deal, members agreed to a trade-off: the overfishing subsidies prohibition was cut from the text for now, but with a clause saying that the whole agreement expires if a more comprehensive deal is not achieved within 4 years of entry into force, unless members agree to extend the deal as is. Left in Article 5 were a strict prohibition on all subsidies to fishing on the unregulated high seas and "special care" obligations for subsidies to reflagged vessels and unassessed stocks.

"Real efforts were made until the last moment to reach the big package, but the politics wouldn’t bear it. What we have is a first step, and it was vitally important to take it," said Tipping.

The agreement achieved on June 17, 2022, at the WTO will need to enter in force and be implemented, a process that IISD has already started supporting. WTO members also committed to negotiate further disciplines in this area. But this deal represents, in itself, a significant success: it is the first multilateral trade agreement centred on an environmental issue. 

And it comes amid a fresh wave of activity on trade and environment in Geneva and beyond, with groups of WTO members looking to work more closely together on topics ranging from trade and plastic pollution to trade and renewable energy products and services. While it took more than 20 years to get to this point, one thing is clear: to address the many sustainability challenges we face, from biodiversity loss to climate change, we need to be creative, we need to be persistent, and we need to draw from the full community working on these issues. 

"It took a herculean effort to get this deal over the finish line. And it wouldn't have happened without the dedication of so many people, around the world, willing to keep pushing, despite the delays and the distractions. Now that we know the trading system can deliver agreements with environmental sustainability at their core, we need to look at what else trade and trade policy can do to tackle the many crises we're facing—and we now have the lessons of these negotiations to draw from as we move forward,” concluded Tipping.

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