WTO negotiators sense new tone in fish talks

Fri Oct 8, 2010 11:12pm IST

* Negotiators engage in detailed fisheries talks

* Subsidies encouraging overfishing

By Jonathan Lynn

GENEVA, Oct 8 (Reuters) - Talks to curb fisheries subsidies have taken on new life, negotiators said on Friday, boding well for efforts to revive depleted global fish stocks and reach a deal to open up world trade.

Trade diplomats said that differences in the fisheries talks at the World Trade Organization remained wide, but countries were working hard to find ways of bridging the gaps.

"It's very clear to me that all delegations remain highly committed and have shown a very constructive disposition," Trinidad's ambassador to the WTO, Dennis Francis, who chairs the negotiations on trade rules that include fisheries subsidies, told Reuters. A diplomat from a large emerging economy commented: "It's a very good atmosphere. People are asking questions and exchanging information."

The new mood contrasts with past meetings on fisheries and other topics marked by deep differences and a reluctance to discuss detail.

The talks turn on ways of curbing the subsidised overfishing held responsible for the near-collapse of global fish stocks, on which hundreds of millions of people rely for food, while finding exceptions for developing countries to allow their small-scale fishermen to continue to earn a living.

INDUSTRIAL FISHING

The ambassador for a large industrialised power said many countries were now focusing on an arrangement that would deal with the most dangerous subsidies rather than covering every problem.

These would be subsidies that increase the capacity of vessels or fleets, such as support for construction and renovation, or facilitate changes in ownership or country.

Australia has called for subsidies for fishing methods that destroy the underwater environment, such as bottom trawling, to be banned.

The environmental activist group Oceana, which advises the U.S. government, estimates that fisheries subsidies total $20 billion a year -- equivalent to about one quarter of the value of the world fish catch.

Fuel subsidies allow fishing fleets to trawl the high seas thousands of miles (kilometers) from home in operations that would not be economical without the subsidies, it says.

The talks are part of the WTO's Doha round to help poor countries prosper through more trade while freeing up global commerce, and mark the first time a specifically environmental issue has been included in trade negotiations.

Rich countries are leading the charge for strict limits on subsidies, despite the concerns of their own fishing communities, but countries such as Japan and China are worried about the impact on their industrial fishing fleets and developing countries such as India and Indonesia are suspicious of moves that could hurt their subsistence fishermen.

The latest WTO fisheries talks took place as part of an informal process of brainstorming by small groups of ambassadors hoping to find a way out of the deadlock that has dogged the more formal Doha negotiations for the past couple of years.

These aim to build trust by looking at options for the whole range of negotiations, not just the core industrial goods and agriculture talks that are stuck on U.S. calls for big emerging states like Brazil, China and India to offer more access.

The start of these small-group talks before the European summer break led WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy to talk of a new dynamism in the Doha negotiations, launched in late 2001.

Many diplomats in Geneva have been talking of the possibility of a breakthrough in 2011. But U.S. chief agricultural negotiator Isi Siddiqui said on Oct. 5 that despite recent progress the Doha talks could stretch into 2012.

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