Free Trade and Fisheries


ActionAid India, National Platform for Small-Scale Fishworkers (Inland), and National Fishworkers Forum (NFF) co-organised a workshop on the impact of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) on fisheries in Hyderabad on 25th July, 2017. The panelists included Prof Mukesh Bhatnagar, Centre for WTO Studies, Arjili Das, District Fishermen Youth Welfare Association, SK Basheer, Association of Rural Development, and Jesu Rethinam, Coastal Action Network and Association.

Prof Mukesh Bhatnagar spoke about the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) rule-making in the area of fisheries subsidies and its implications for policy making in member countries, which can impact the capacities of fishworkers and their access to government schemes.

He said that the attempt to discipline subsidies given to fishworkers is driven by environmental concerns related to over-exploitation of global marine resources, which leads to depletion of fish stocks and degradation of marine ecosystems. This school of thought propagated by an informal grouping called “Friends of Fish” comprising of USA, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Iceland, Chile, Colombia, and Peru says that large scale programmes of governments that subsidise fishing efforts through fuel subsidies, price and income support, boat building support, and provision of infrastructure for marine capture fisheries etc. are contributing to the exploitation and depletion and therefore, these programmes need to be reined in.

The Doha Ministerial Conference of 2001 launched negotiations to clarify and improve WTO disciplines on fisheries subsidies, and then clearer and more precise directions were given at the Hong Kong Ministerial Conference in 2005; there was a broad agreement on strengthening discipline on fisheries including through prohibition of certain subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing.  It also said that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing countries and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) should be integral to the fisheries subsidies negotiations, given the importance of this sector to their development priorities, poverty reduction, and livelihood and food security.

But negotiations in fisheries subsidies have since reached a stalemate due to continuing divergence in the positions of the Friends of Fish group, countries such as Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Chinese Taipei, which have large subsidy programmes and have expressed scepticism over the link between subsidies and over-fishing, and developing countries, who have not been big subsidisers traditionally and are demanding special and differential treatment.

In 2015, with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the issue of fisheries subsidies has come into focus again. Goal 14 on the conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources has committed that by 2020, certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing will be prohibited, and subsidies that contribute to Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing will be eliminated. The goal also recognizes the need for appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing countries and LDCs in the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiation.

Prof Bhatnagar explained that due to their capacity constraints, developing countries are wary of binding rules formulated in the WTO on IUU fishing or overfished stocks. They are of the opinion that if they are to meet international standards, they should be accorded the policy space to allow some of their programmes to continue. Therefore, developing countries and LDCs want differential clauses that allow them more time to develop mechanisms to tackle unreported and unregulated fishing, and also give them the policy space to continue certain subsidies for artisanal fishworkers and small scale fishing activities. As regards prohibition of subsidies for overfished stocks, the capacity of developing countries to do regular stock assessment has to be kept in view.

The effort of the Indian government has been to protect policy space as far as possible by keeping territorial waters fishing out of disciplines, and demanding that regulations be based on national capabilities when it comes to exclusive economic zones.

With regard to FTAs, Prof Bhatnagar talked about the now shelved Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), which had a chapter on environment and marine fisheries. There was a clear agreement on disciplining fisheries subsidies which support IUU fishing or where stocks are in overfished conditions. There is widespread concern that these components are now being built into the WTO’s rule making and may also be included in other such mega-FTAs.

He concluded by saying that as countries head into the Buenos Aires Ministerial Conference in December 2017, there is greater urgency related to the WTO negotiations on fisheries. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen how far developing countries like India, Indonesia, and China can extract an effective special and differential treatment.

Arjili Das talked about the challenges faced by the fishing community. He said that India has more than 3800 fishing villages along its long coastline and in Andhra Pradesh alone, around 6,00,000 people are involved in fish work. The majority of them are traditional fishworkers, who are dependent on fishing for their sustenance, but they remain extremely disadvantaged as compared to mechanized or deep sea fishworkers. For example, mechanized trawlers, which can catch fish from 5 kms up to 150 kms, usually leave traditional fishworkers with very little or no catch. He also said that while 200 crores worth of subsidies are given annually to fisheries in India, the majority of the beneficiaries are mechanized and deep sea fishworkers. There are also other barriers including ignorance of government schemes and the inability of small-scale fishworkers to approach banks to avail of preferential schemes and loans.

Mr Das discussed the detrimental impacts of development projects such as coastal corridors and the Sagarmala initiative. He said that these projects are leading to the shrinking of opportunities for beach-based fish catch as large tracts of coastal lands are being acquired, while encouraging port based and harbor based fishing. This has reduced access to catchment areas for many small-scale fishworkers. He also flagged the issue of marine pollution which has led to the extinction of many fish species in the past few years, and the impact of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which is set to increase the tax incidence of small apparatus such as hooks, nets, and boat repairing material on fishworkers. He urged that there is a need to continue subsidies as any withdrawal would have a deep impact on the livelihoods and food security of fishworkers.

SK Basheer said that pollution and degradation of traditional water bodies remains a huge concern for inland fishworkers. He also highlighted that inland fishing is closely related to the issue of land ownership; inland fishworkers are dependent on common traditional water bodies for their catch and therefore, any attempt to privatize or acquire common land has an impact on their livelihood. He also spoke about the impact of natural disasters such as droughts, which are becoming more severe and prolonged due to climate change, and are adding to the water stress and vulnerability of inland fishworkers.

Jesu Rethinam said that it is important for fishworkers to understand linkages between trade negotiations and fisheries sector, as these negotiations typically include import tariffs on fish and fish products. She also talked about major legislations on marine fishing in India and the issues therein. For example, the new National Policy on Marine Fisheries has proposed introduction of individual and transferable quota systems despite the fact that it is seen as a failed model internationally. She also said that the coastal infrastructure being developed through projects such as Sagarmala is focused on large ports and harbours, which will cater to big vessels but will lead to elimination of small fishworkers. Further, the construction of stone walls for addressing sea erosion could end shore line fisheries and small fishing hamlets, thereby hampering the access of small-scale fishworkers to coastal habitats and marine resources. In this scenario, they may not have a choice but to work on big mechanized fishing boats as labour.

Furthermore, the government has issued a notification on the Marine and Coastal Regulation Zone Regulation (MCRZ) (2017), without putting it through a process of consultation. The regulation is expected to be much weaker than the Coastal Regulation Zone of 2011. It proposes to shrink the no-development zone in rural coastal areas from 200 m from the high tide line to merely 50 m. It also proposes to reduce the coastal protection zone for islands from the present 500 m from the high tide line to just 20 m.

In this context, Jesu Rethinam went over the set of demands that the NFF has articulated-

  1. Separate Ministry for Fisheries at the central level
  2. Stop the implementation of the Sagarmala project and the MCRZ, 2017 and implement the CRZ 2011 notification
  3. Prioritise access of small scale fishworkers to marine fish resources
  4. Formulation of the FAO voluntary guidelines on small-scale fisheries into law

Traditional marine fishworkers are essential to the protection and conservation of India’s coasts and its vast marine resources. Similarly, inland fishworkers play an essential role in the maintenance and rejuvenation of traditional water bodies and ecological systems.

Therefore, the focus of the government should be on increasing public investments in the fisheries sector and strengthening availability and access to infrastructure such as storage facilities, market linkages, and credit, particularly for small-scale fishworkers.

Given its vital nature, there are also grave concerns about the opening up of the sector to foreign investments and competition from large fish exporting companies, as it is not tenable for the livelihoods and survival of small-scale fishworkers. The impacts of FTAs and clauses such as the Investment State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), which restrict the policymaking powers of local and national governments, also need to be further examined and respective policies should be formulated through consultative processes to ensure that they ultimately benefit people.


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