WTO fisheries talks suspended due to COVID preoccupations: document

GENEVA (Reuters) - World Trade Organization negotiations aimed at cutting billions of dollars in subsidies that contribute to overfishing have been suspended due to opposition from some countries that are too preoccupied with COVID-19, an internal document showed.

In an email to WTO delegates, chair Santiago Wills said some members were “unable to engage in negotiation discussions due to their need to combat COVID-19 pandemic domestically” as well as movement restrictions.

“It is fair to say that the Group as a whole is not ready to fully engage while still facing these struggles,” the email sent on May 7 said. Wills declined to comment.

It was not clear exactly which countries objected although a trade official said the African, Caribbean and Pacific States Group had raised doubts.

Fish subsidy talks, ongoing since 2001 and seen as crucial to restoring faith in the Geneva-based body which has not concluded a major deal for years, had been making some progress ahead of a 2020 deadline.

The chair had been preparing a draft text as a basis for a final deal, three sources close to the talks said. But three rounds of talks have been cancelled since March when the Geneva headquarters shut due to COVID measures, they said.

“The momentum was really building up and now it has come to a screeching halt,” said a delegate.

WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell confirmed that members, who make decisions by consensus, could not agree on continuing the talks. “We do not have this consensus,” he added.

Fishing subsidies worth tens of billions of dollars, such as those for fuel, encourage large industrial vessels to travel far out to sea and are depleting wild fish stocks. China and the European Union are among major subsidy users.

Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Giles Elgood