GENEVA Environmental activists are hopeful that negotiations at the World Trade Organization to curb fisheries subsidies, especially those on fuel, can produce a deal that will help end overfishing.
Agreement would not only help reverse the alarming depletion of global fish stocks and contribute to a broader trade deal in the WTO's long-running Doha round, but would provide a template for tackling global problems such as climate change that have a trade dimension.
Despite big differences over the scope of a deal and which countries should be exempted from which provisions, the outlines of an agreement are already emerging," Peter Allgeier, former long-serving U.S. ambassador to the WTO, told Reuters after two weeks of talks on fishing as part of a renewed push on Doha.
"You've got a structure there," Allgeier, who now heads the trade consultancy arm of law firm Crowell and Moring, and is advising Oceana, an advocacy group fighting for ocean conservation, said on Thursday.
WTO members are all agreed that they have a mandate to impose trade disciplines on fishing subsidies, which will involve prohibitions of some support, he said.
They accept that the way to do this is to agree prohibitions and then work out exceptions and flexibilities for suitable cases, and that fuel subsidies will be a central part of a deal.
In its latest two-yearly survey of fishing last month, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said that 85 percent of fish stocks are now fully exploited, over-exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion, a figure that has deteriorated steadily in recent years.
"If current trends continue the world's fisheries could be beyond recovery within decades, within our lifetime," Oceana's senior campaign director, Courtney Sakai, told Reuters.
One of the main reasons for this over-fishing is that many countries subsidize uneconomic activities, such as long-distance deep-sea fishing, where fuel amounts to two thirds or more of the operating costs of a fishing fleet.
Every country accepts the need to curb or prohibit these subsidies -- but each one also argues its own arrangements are special and should be exempt. But Trinidad's WTO ambassador, Dennis Francis, who chairs the talks on fishery subsidies and other trade rules, has challenged WTO members to subject each other's programs to scrutiny.
"Everybody has got to figure out how they are going to discipline their fuel subsidies," said Allgeier. "You just can't have a situation where some are allowed to do it and some aren't... Everybody's got to give."
Another faultline in the talks is whether the emphasis should be on fair trade or the environment.
Japan says that bringing trade considerations into the talks, even though they are at the WTO, is a distraction and they should focus on resource management and conservation.
But Allgeier said there is a clear trade dimension.
Subsidies in industry hurt a competitor by depriving them of market share or profits but do not stop them from manufacturing. Fisheries subsidies are different.
"If I'm subsidizing my fishing fleet I'm actually taking away from you your resource base," he said.
Developing countries insist that their small-scale and subsistence fishermen should be exempt from any restrictions on subsidies, and Sakai said it was reasonable for poor countries to help under-developed coastal communities with infrastructure and other support to build viable, self-sustaining industries.
Japan has also proposed that small-scale fishing in developed countries should enjoy similar waivers from restrictions, but other countries such as the United States, New Zealand and Mexico say this would open too many loopholes.
(Editing by Stephanie Nebehay)