Ocean advocates hopeful of WTO cut in fishing support
By Missy Ryan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Supporters of action to protect the world's fragile fish stocks are hoping that a recent proposal to drastically limit fishing subsidies will prevail in global trade talks.
"We are in such dire conditions," said Courtney Sakai, campaign director for Oceana, an environmental group that vocally opposed subsidies for boat-building, fuel and other activities they say have pushed fisheries close to exhaustion.
Critics of those subsidies, which total about $20 billion a year globally, hope that a long-awaited agreement in the World Trade Organization's Doha round will force countries like Japan to scale back payments.
"There really needs to be a reduction in these subsidies that encourage overfishing," Sakai said.
Ocean activists say that overfishing and habitat destruction could collapse the world's fish and seafood populations by 2048.
According to the United Nations, 52 percent of marine fish stocks are at or near the maximum sustainable output levels, and almost 20 percent are over-exploited.
The United States is also hoping the Doha round, which negotiators are angling to conclude this year, will be a vehicle for new restrictions.
Last year, the Bush administration called in the talks for a blanket ban on subsidies for wild-capture fishing.
Its WTO plan would have provided some exceptions for subsidies that do not encourage overfishing, such as boat buybacks, stock enhancement, or research programs.
But the latest WTO draft on issue, which was released in November, takes a different approach, prohibiting a list of subsidies that encourage over-fishing, such as vessel construction or repair or for fleet operation.
It would provide more berth for other subsidies, and would give more leeway to developing countries, where the poor may rely on fishing for their livelihoods. Those countries would be required to produce conservation plans.
Even so, said Gretchen Hamel, a spokeswoman for Trade Representative Susan Schwab, the WTO outline "sets a high level of ambition that we are pleased with, and we will work hard to make sure that it is not whittled away."
The United States does not provide the kind of subsidies targeted by ocean activists.
This week, Schwab met actor Ted Danson, who is campaigning with Oceana to raise the issue's profile in Washington. "We are on the brink of an irreversible collapse," Danson said in a speech the National Press Club.
Opposition remains to the reductions, especially from several countries with major fishing industries.
Sakai described the position of the European Union, which includes countries with active fishing industries, as "not particularly constructive."
Negotiations on fishing subsidies are one small slice of the massive and contentious agenda of the Doha round, which has been proceeding at a glacial pace since they began in 2001.
Even if consensus is secured on the fishing proposal, the rules would not become binding unless an overall Doha agreement can finally be had.
The Bush administration is hoping for a breakthrough on the round's main areas -- agriculture, industry, and services -- in the next month or two, which would allow enough time to finish talks on other issues, like fishing subsidies, before President George W. Bush leaves office.
According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, China, Peru and the United States were the world's top fish producers in 2004.
At the end of that year, the world fishing fleet included about 4 million vessels, with the lion's share in Asia.
On China, Sakai said, a key concern is to "craft rules that ensure that it cannot use developing country treatment as a loophole to subsidize its massive, global fishing activity."
(Editing by Russell Blinch and Marguerita Choy)