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WTO in Fishing Subsidy Talks

FILE: Delegation members are seen at the entrance of the World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters during the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva on early June 17, 2022.

The World Trade Organization set sail Monday on a "second wave" of negotiations on fisheries subsidies, the new head of the talks announced, after months stuck on the rocks.

Under the June agreement, the global trade body's 164 members committed to keep talking on outstanding issues in order to strike a comprehensive agreement at the next WTO ministerial conference, to be held in the United Arab Emirates in February 2024.

But the second wave of negotiations could not start because members struggled to agree on a new chair for the so-called Negotiating Group on Rules overseeing the process.

They have finally found a replacement for Wills in the hot-seat at the WTO's headquarters in Geneva: Icelandic ambassador Einar Gunnarsson.

He chaired his first plenary meeting on Monday, reporting back to the members on talks he held between February 8 and 15 with some 30 delegations representing individual members and groups of members.

"I am optimistic we will be able to meet our marching orders a year from now, by the 13th ministerial conference, to make recommendations for additional provisions that would achieve a comprehensive agreement on fisheries subsidies," he told a press conference afterwards.

"The tone was uniformly positive and constructive."

Beyond the usual meetings, he announced four dedicated "fish weeks" of intensive discussions between now and July, with the first during the week of March 20.

Gunnarsson reported back that countries had stressed the importance of drawing up rules on subsidies contributing to overcapacity and overfishing, including flexibility for developing and poorer countries.

After more than two decades of negotiations towards banning harmful subsidies that encourage overfishing and threaten the sustainability of the planet's fish stocks, a deal, albeit watered down, was finally sealed at the WTO conference in June in Geneva.

The agreement bans subsidies that contribute to fishing that is illegal, unreported or unregulated, or of overfished stock.

The deal recognizes so-called special and differential treatment for developing countries.

But the text was dramatically slimmed down amid pressure from India especially, which balked at calls to ban subsidies that contribute to overfishing more broadly.

For the 2022 agreement to be implemented, two-thirds of the WTO's members must submit their "instruments of acceptance" with the global trade body.

So far, two countries have done so: Singapore and Switzerland.