GENEVA (Reuters) - World Trade Organization (WTO) member states agreed on Friday to a new chair for talks to end harmful fishing subsidies, though an NGO said it would still take a “Herculean” effort to reach a deal before an end-December deadline.
The decision came in Geneva at the penultimate scheduled meeting ahead of the deadline the WTO has set itself to end billions of dollars in subsidies that are leading to massive overfishing and depletion of stocks.
The U.N. Special Envoy for the Ocean Peter Thomson last month called it “insanity” and said money governments spend subsidising fishing should be directed elsewhere.
The closed-door meetings in Geneva are the biggest ongoing negotiations within the WTO and delegates say the credibility of the institution, which is also facing major challenges within its top court, is at stake as well as the future of fish stocks.
Ending months of wrangling over leadership that has left the talks stuck in technical discussions and petty disagreements, a Geneva trade official said delegates agreed on Friday to appoint Colombia’s Ambassador Santiago Wills.
“The new chair intends to convene heads of delegation as soon as possible to seek political guidance on how to use the remaining time in 2019,” the official said.
But some delegates were deeply skeptical, with one saying a December deal would never happen.
“Nobody is even talking about December anymore,” he added.
In another sign the deadline had been abandoned, the Philippines’ representative spoke of aiming for success at the next ministerial conference, due in June in Kazakhstan.
A paper published by Marine Policy in September estimated global subsidies at $35.4 billion in 2018, although not all of those are the harmful ones targeted by the WTO.
China, the European Union, the United States, South Korea and Japan are the top five subsidizers.
Campaigners warn that some fish stocks are at risk of collapse and say a timely agreement on ending harmful subsidies would help stop the trend. Posters with schools of silver fish have been pasted onto Geneva buses that pass in front of the WTO headquarters and British naturalist Sir David Attenborough released a video urging action last month.
“It will take a Herculean effort to get an agreement by the end of December,” said Isabel Jarrett from NGO The Pew Charitable Trusts, which sponsored the posters.
“But if governments are serious about slaying the hydra of harmful fisheries subsidies, protecting the oceans and revitalizing multilateralism, now is the moment for world leaders to lean in and invigorate negotiations.”
Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne