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Milko Schvartzman reflected together with PUERTO MAGAZINE

WTO Agreement: 'Until a month ago subsidies for illegal fishing were allowed'

Click on the flag for more information about Argentina ARGENTINA
Friday, July 01, 2022, 01:50 (GMT + 9)

IUU Fishing specialist Milko Schvartzman reflected with REVISTA PUERTO on the scope of the recently approved agreement to eliminate fishing subsidies. We talked about the shortcomings, but also about the positive use that Argentina can make of this new legal tool.

On June 17, the World Trade Organization (WTO) approved the agreement to eliminate fishing subsidies, a text that exhibits some gray points and has left important issues related to transparency to the discretion of the granting states. However, despite this, there is consensus that it is a step forward that will give results in a few years. That is the view of our interviewee, Milko Schvartzman, a member of the Circle of Environmental Policies, adviser to Deputy Mariana Zuvic, and persevering investigator against Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated (IUU) fishing. In this talk we address the highlights of the agreement, some of its shortcomings and the impact that its application may have on the foreign fleet that operates in the South Atlantic, on the edge of our Exclusive Economic Zone.

REVISTA PUERTO: The entity to which you belong has shown a positive view of the WTO agreement. What are the most notable favorable aspects that you find?

MILKO SCHVARTZMAN: We celebrate it modestly, because it did not have the scope that was expected, it is not the draft that had been closed in December 2021, it does not reach that level of ambition. But it is positive because it prohibits subsidies to vessels and shipowners involved in IUU fishing, this is a step forward, something that was obvious, but we did not have it. It also prohibits subsidies to overfished species, which is also a no-brainer, but it closes the loop on various kinds of destructive fishing operations. Of course there are other aspects that were not considered, such as the fuel subsidy, but we understand that it has to do with the global context. We also celebrate that an agreement has been reached because there were states that did not want any type of agreement and tried to boycott it for years, reaching an agreement is already progress if we take this into account. On the other hand, the same agreement states that work must continue on the issues that were pending from the 2021 drafts, so it is more likely that it will be toughened and not softened, which is why we celebrate it.

RP: One of the positive articles states that subsidies may not be granted to fleets that do not operate in any RFMO or in areas regulated by some other type of multilateral agreement. What impact can this have on the foreign fleet operating in the South Atlantic?

MS: Well, they should not receive more subsidies, it is clear that in this region and in other regions where there is an RFMO that does not legislate on certain species; As in the case of the eastern South Pacific, where the RFMO does not regulate the exploitation of squid, the vessels that fish for this resource there should not receive subsidies either. This is one of the most positive aspects of the agreement. What I do not know is what maneuver the countries that grant these subsidies can use to avoid complying with the agreement, but in principle they will be very worried because in about two years they will have to stop subsidizing this fleet and its operation is economically viable thanks to subsidies.

RP: It is not clear how they are going to control that, for example, China does not subsidize their fleet. The agreement does not include economic or commercial penalties for those who fail to comply.

MS: That's right, it does not contemplate penalties, but it does include the creation of a body to control compliance that must be operational within a period of no more than five years and penalties could arise in the future. An important point in this regard is that the agreement obliges the states to report what subsidies they grant, this helps transparency. China, for example, has not reported since 2017 what subsidies it is granting or to what vessels and now it will be obliged; however unbelievable China may be, it represents progress.

RP: What was most celebrated in the WTO was precisely the inclusion of the articles linked to transparency as compensation for everything that has been left out. But aren't actions linked to transparency too subject to the criteria of whoever grants the subsidy? Doesn't this flexibility relativize the impact of these articles?

MS: Yes, the agreement has several shades of gray in which it is relativized or left to the discretion of the flag state; In another aspect, it is also pointed out that they must take special care and moderation when granting subsidies on populations whose status is unknown, it is a pity that it has not been included as an impossibility to receive subsidies.

And leaving it to the discretion of the state what it will do with the subsidized vessel that carried out IUU fishing leaves another gray. It leaves several issues to the discretion of countries involved in illegal fishing, countries with very little transparency. These grays remain at the mercy of the pressure exerted by public opinion and the coastal states. It's not ideal.

RP: You have worked and denounced labor abuses aboard IUU fishing fleets, you collaborated in the investigation that reported the arrival of one death per month at the port of Montevideo in 2019. What happened to you when you saw that the paragraph that condemn forced labor?

MS: The proposal presented by the United States in 2021 was very encouraging, the problem was that it was introduced on the closing of the final document and jeopardized the negotiations of the rest of the articles that had been discussed since 2020. Each article is linked to the negotiations that took place and the changes are negotiated on changes in other articles; Although unfortunate, this put the entire agreement at risk. The problem is not what the United States is proposing, which is something we all agree on, but the moment in which it was done, which made it unfeasible. However, there are other maritime agreements that are being worked on to ensure that labor rights are respected.

RP: Is the ratification of the agreement a fact?

MS: It is very likely because it has been achieved by consensus, in the WTO voting can be carried out and decisions can be made by simple majority, but in this era of multilateralism consensus is sought so that later all the states ratify it and it is very difficult that someone does not do it after having been a signatory to the agreement and having approved it. In many cases of agreements on the environment, the search for consensus ends in an agreement so devalued that it is useless. In this case, although it had a weakening, what was resolved is useful.

RP: When will any effect of this agreement be seen?

MS: We are not going to see that in 2023 it will be left to subsidize, but in a few years we will see the results, we must think that the international image of China is being affected by all the denunciations of what they do on the high seas. Although they have not taken action, they are making announcements every year, this year they officially announced that they are going to limit the number of vessels operating in certain regions such as the South Atlantic. What these agreements allow is to tend towards what we are looking for, it is a legal tool that we did not have, a month ago subsidizing illegal fishing was legal.

RP: This agreement requires riparian states to play an active role in complaining about situations that may be subject to prohibition of subsidies. In our case, could the agreement have a greater impact if we look for biological elements to prevent the further exploitation of straddling species?

MS: Yes, the agreement is a legal tool to exert diplomatic pressure, it requires that Argentina and the other coastal states remain active and not relax before the mere approval of the text. Argentina and the other Latin American countries working as a bloc were quite proactive in negotiating the agreement, but in general the Argentine diplomatic muscle against IUU fishing is quite inactive. Now they have released a statement about fishing in Georgia because it involves the Malvinas issue, but Argentina is not doing what it should do. Now, if so much work was done together with other countries to achieve this agreement, it must continue and the diplomatic muscle must continue outside the WTO, demanding that China and the European Union ratify and comply with this agreement in the South Atlantic. It is not something complicated, it should be mentioned before each meeting with these countries and in each meeting of international organizations, such as the G7 and the G20. The agreement by itself will not solve our problems, now there must be public pressure and important work by state agencies, scientists, NGOs and the media to put it into practice.

Author/ Source: Karina Fernandez / Revista Puerto (translated from original in Spanish)

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