Philippines wants disputed waters included in WTO fisheries subsidies

Catherine Talavera - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines — Food security advocacy group Tugon Kabuhayan emphasized the need to include disputed waters in the agreement currently being negotiated by the World Trade Organization (WTO) on the prohibition of harmful fishery subsidies, saying the exclusion of these areas would further affect the livelihood of Filipino fishermen.

In a virtual press briefing yesterday, Tugon Kabuhayan convenor Asis Perez expressed the group’s support for the country’s position in calling for the immediate conclusion of WTO negotiations in eliminating subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, overfished stocks, and overcapacity and overfishing.

“Tugon Kabuhayan supports the position of the Philippine delegation calling for the WTO panel to continue hearing cases of harmful subsidies even if the fishing operations occurred in the so-called disputed waters,” the group said.

“We believe that the prohibition against harmful subsidies will result in better management of the dwindling fish stocks which some fishing operations are able to exploit, even if such exploitation is no longer economically viable, simply because of these harmful and, in reality, wrongful subsidies,” it said.

Last week, Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez and Agriculture Secretary William Dar represented the Philippines at a virtual ministerial meeting of the WTO trade negotiations committee on fisheries subsidies.

Dar urged the WTO to reconsider the current language under the draft text of the agreement, particularly on the exemption of disputed waters.

“The current draft text of the agreement contains a carve-out that if a prohibited subsidy occurs in disputed waters, it will not be addressed by a WTO panel, as this will provide a loophole for countries involved in maritime disputes to be exempted from the disciplines,”Dar said.

“Issues of territorial claims or delimitation of maritime boundaries or zones are of the highest concern for the Philippines, but nothing must prohibit a duly constituted panel from hearing a case,” he sad.

Tugon Kabuhayan noted that China is among the countries with large subsidies for commercial fishing operations.

It cited data from a 2016 study entitled “Fisheries subsidies in China: Quantitative and qualitative assessment of policy coherence and effectiveness,” which showed that the Chinese government spent RMB 40.383 billion or $6.5 billion on fisheries subsidies, the bulk or 94 percent of which was in the form of fuel subsidies.

It added that the study also found that about 95 percent of Chinese fisheries subsidies was harmful to sustainability.

Tugon Kabuhayan recalled that in March, 237 Chinese vessels were found swarming Julian Felipe Reef, with their presence continuing into May.

The National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) said the vessels were about 60 meters in length and could each carry an estimated 240,000 kilos of fish.

Perez warned in May that the catch of the sighted fishing vessels had already reached at least 54,984 metric tons of fish, which amounted to the Philippines’ loss of at least P3.5 billion worth of marine catch.

“These vessels are committing IUU fishing in our waters and they are able to do it despite being not economically viable because these Chinese fishing vessels are recipients of massive Chinese government subsidy,” Tugon Kabuhayan said.

The group stressed that a 60-meter fishing vessel would require at least 5,000 to 10,000 liters of fuel to operate daily, at least 35 officers and men to operate, and huge maintenance and depreciation costs as each vessel can easily be over $10 million each.

Based on the group’s fishing industry experience, the cost to maintain and operate a vessel of that size is around P500,000 daily or around $10,000.

“This means that these vessels should be able to catch around 10 metric tons of tuna or around 12 to 14 tons of round scad (galungong) just to break-even. It is impossible for these 237 vessels to catch enough fish to even cover their basic daily cost to operate as well as maintenance and depreciation, if not for the huge subsidy that they enjoy,” the group said.

Fisheries subsidies are government actions or inactions that are specific to the fisheries industry and that modifies - by increasing or decreasing - the potential profits by the industry in the short-, medium- or long-term, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

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