Last week, Sri Lanka hosted the 15th session of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC).The IOTC is an organisation mandated to manage tuna and tuna like species in the Indian Ocean and adjacent seas with the objective of promoting cooperation among the members with a view to ensuring through appropriate management, the conservation and optimum utilisation of stocks and ensuring sustainable development of fisheries based on such stocks.
It is reported that the meeting was fruitful to the extent that Sri Lanka was able to successfully lead the protests of coastal countries to postpone the allocation of tuna quotas among the member countries. The need for coastal countries to become organised in order to present a common front has also been highlighted by Sri Lanka.
These are important developments, particularly in the light of developed countries using unsustainable fishing methods as opposed to the traditional methods used by the coastal countries where fisheries provide livelihood to a substantial portion of the country’s population.
Unsustainable fishing practices mostly by the developed countries are now reported to be responsible for the dwindling numbers of tuna to the extent that the continuation of such practices may result in the extinction of the tuna.
While these efforts to protect the tuna species are commendable, effort must also be taken to protect the fisheries sector at the WTO Doha Round negotiations. The negotiating group on rules at the WTO covers fisheries negotiations and negotiations are ongoing on rules governing fisheries subsidies.
Draft rules on Special & Differential Treatment (S&D) for developing countries in future on fisheries subsidies are at the centre of the negotiations. It is also reported that there appears to be some degree of agreement on the proposals before the committee and the month of April might see some final compromises.
Government payments to boost the size and capacity of fishing fleets are also being blamed for the dramatic depletion of global marine fish stocks. Overfishing has global economic and environmental effects. In countries like Sri Lanka, the sector, in addition to contributing to the economy, also contributes to the nutritional supplement and thereby to the health of the population, much more than in the developed countries.
Under discussion at the WTO are what subsidies should and what subsidies should not be prohibited as well as how members can ensure that subsidies that are permitted do not contribute to the depletion of stocks.
Some members stress on the importance of allowing developing countries adequate flexibility in any new disciplines. Whether and how countries will be able to subsidise fuel for fishing fleets remain the most contentious issue in the negotiations. It is said that establishing the true extent of funding can be difficult as fuel subsidies can be given through a number of complex channels.
The issue of ‘specificity’ is a difficult area in the talks. In most cases, a subsidy must be ‘specific’ to a particular industry in order to come under the WTO’s legal definition of the word. Many countries such as the US provide fuel subsidies in the form of tax rebates that are available to other industries too. As such, they are not considered actionable. Developing countries therefore are seeking the elimination of the specificity requirements on any prohibition that would apply to fuel to ensure that the final text will not create a bias in favour of developed countries.
Developing countries have also been complaining that fisheries exports from developing countries have been subject to strict health standards and the cost of meeting these standards can be prohibitive.
With issues such as given above, Sri Lanka’s proactive participation at these talks is of importance. Sri Lanka being a small and vulnerable island economy, effort must be taken to protect her interests in this sphere.
(Manel de Silva holds an Honours Degree in Political Science from the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya and has engaged in professional training in Commercial Diplomacy at ITC and GATT. She has served as a trade diplomat in several Sri Lankan Missions overseas and was the first female Head of the Department of Commerce as Director General of Commerce.)