After more than a year of political wrangling, European Union fisheries ministers are set on Monday to adopt a new industry aid package worth €3.8bn ($4.8bn) over the next six years.
However, the move is expected to fuel accusations by conservation groups such as WWF International that the EU has joined Japan in dragging its heels on a proposed World Trade Organisation pact to outlaw subsidies that encourage overfishing.
WTO members have set a deadline for producing a draft agreement on fisheries subsidies, part of the Doha global trade round, by the end of next month. But WWF says omissions and loopholes in the proposals made so far could render the accord meaningless.
Fishing subsidies are estimated to total more than $15bn a year, or roughly 20 per cent of industry revenue, with Japan, the EU, the US, Canada, Russia, South Korea and Taiwan the biggest subsidisers. While subsidies continue to promote larger, more powerful fleets, global catches are no higher than five years ago. Three-quarters of commercial fisheries are overexploited or depleted.
Environmentalists have long since written off Japan as a “lost cause” in the battle to curb fishing subsidies. In the WTO negotiations Tokyo has consistently tried to minimise proposed subsidy restrictions. But Brussels, which had its own shake-up of fisheries in 2002, had until last year been seen as an ally in the anti-subsidy campaign spearheaded in the WTO by the so-called friends of fish, including the US, New Zealand, Iceland, Chile and the Philippines.
Activists say the European Commission has backed away from tough reform under pressure from Poland and the Baltic states, which joined the EU in 2004, for more money to renew their ageing fishing fleets. Their demands have been supported by some Mediterranean countries, including Spain, Portugal and France.
“The European Union began dragging its feet a year ago and is now once again a negative influence in the negotiations,” said a close observer of the WTO talks, which resumed last week.
WWF says the Commission appears to want to ban only those subsidies that increase fleet capacity, narrowly defined by numbers and size of boats, and keep modernisation subsidies, for instance, for new engines.
However, the Commission insists that the aid package due for approval is in line with its goal of reducing capacity and maintaining a ban on subsidies for building fishing vessels. “It is not correct” to claim that the EU has been backtracking on its pledge to tackle overcapacity, said a spokeswoman for Joe Borg, the EU fisheries commissioner.