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WTO says preliminary fishery talks ‘successful’, making deal possible

The World Trade Organization said Thursday that a trade minister meeting aimed at jump-starting negotiations towards banning subsidies that favour overfishing had been “successful”, signalling a deal could be possible.

“I believe that the answers today have given us the ingredients to reach a successful conclusion,” Colombian ambassador Santiago Wills, who chairs the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations, told reporters in Geneva.

WTO members have for the past two decades been discussing the need for a deal banning subsidies that contribute to illegal and unregulated fishing, as well as to overfishing that threatens the sustainability of fish stocks and the industry.

While fishing should in theory be held in check by the environment, with low fish stocks pushing up costs, subsidies can keep unprofitable fleets at sea.

Global fisheries subsidies are estimated at between $14 billion and $54 billion a year, according to the WTO.

It is widely agreed that action is needed to protect a crucial resource that millions of people depend on for their livelihoods.

But over the past 20 years, WTO members have failed to clinch an agreement, and a range of sticking points remained apparent after Thursday’s virtual meeting.

Wills acknowledged that “there are still gaps” but hailed the fact that the ministers had agreed to move forward with text-based negotiations.

He said Thursday’s talks meant there was now “a commitment, as well as a text that can be the platform for this final phase of the negotiations.”

WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who has made clinching the long-awaited fisheries deal by the end of this year a priority, also hailed the meeting as a “success”.

“What makes one feel closer is that… for 20 years, there has not even been an agreed text,” she told reporters.

“For the first time, we have a text that ministers have said, on the basis of this text, let’s try to negotiate.”