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WTO agreements have a direct impact on fish trade
WTO agreements have a direct impact on fish trade


The World Trade Organization was established in 1995 as the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) founded after World War II. The system of international trade rules was developed through a series of trade negotiations, or rounds, held under GATT. The first rounds dealt mainly with tariff reductions but later negotiations included other areas such as anti-dumping and non-tariff measures. The 1986-94 Uruguay Round - led to the WTO's creation.

The WTO had 157 member countries in 2012, its membership growing 9 % over the last decade. With the accession of China in November 2001, Viet Nam in January 2007 and the Russian Federation in August 2012, the major fishery producing / consuming countries are now members of WTO and most international seafood trade is bound by the WTO trade agreements.

The Doha Declaration

In November 2001, the WTO Fourth Ministerial Conference meeting in Doha, Qatar, provided the mandate for new multilateral trade negotiations on a range of subjects, including issues concerning the implementation of the present agreements. The issues most relevant for fish trade, apart from a general liberalisation of international trade, further reduction of import tariffs and the implementation of the SPS and TBT agreements, are fisheries subsidies, labelling matters including the use of eco-labels, and treatment of foreign investors.

The Doha declaration sets 1 January 2005 as the date for completing the negotiations on most issues. Progress is to be reviewed at the Fifth Ministerial Conference in 2003 to be held in Mexico.

The negotiations take place in the Trade Negotiations Committee and its subsidiaries. Other work under the work programme takes place in other WTO councils and committees.

Ministers in Doha also approved a decision on problems faced by developing countries in implementing the current WTO agreements.

Fishery products and high tariffs

Although the Uruguay Round reduced many tariffs, a number of fishery products, and value-added products in particular, are still subject to high tariffs. At the same time, the diminished overall importance of import duties has led exporting countries to become more concerned about other barriers to trade, especially control or sanitary measures, technical requirements as well as trade distortion through subsidies and dumping.

The Dispute Settlement Mechanism, introduced during the Uruguay Round is designed to resolve trade conflicts between countries. It is a large improvement upon the previous system and shortens considerably the time necessary to resolve trade conflicts.

The Uruguay Round Agreements on Non-tariff Measures apply to all WTO members and have multilateral status, ensuring global coverage of the rules. As a result, a WTO member applying non-tariff measures is required to follow precise guidelines to make the system transparent and predictable, as well as to provide a procedural guarantee for exporters. This applies also to fish and fishery products.

Major agreements from the Uruguay Round with relevance for fisheries

Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures

The SPS Measures are among the most relevant for fish trade as it may prove to be the favourite means of protectionism for importing countries. The relevant provisions of the SPS Agreement for trade in fish and fish products are:

  • to use harmonization principles, i.e. to establish national sanitary and phytosanitary rules reflecting standards agreed in the relevant international institutions such as the Codex Alimentarius for fish products and OIE for live fish;
  • when international standards do not exist or harmonization is not appropriate, to use the alternative equivalence principle whereby the importing country accepts that SPS measures in the exporting country achieve an appropriate level of health protection, even though they differ from the measures used in the importing country;
  • to provide either scientific evidence or appropriate risk assessment if a country intends not to rely on harmony or equivalence but rather on its own domestic standards.
Offloading squid at a seafront market
Offloading squid at a seafront market
Courtesy of NOAA/NMFS/Edward J. Pastula

The change in import regulations such as the introduction of HACCP, is probably the most prominent example of an SPS application. One example of dispute involving fish products was the case brought by the United States against Australia for measures applied on imported salmonids.

Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT Agreement)

Technical regulations and standards applied to fish products may at times lead to distortions or obstacles to trade such as labelling disputes or testing procedures. The TBT sets the rules for how these should be designed.

One recent dispute on labelling is the disagreement between Peru and the European Communities on labelling of certain species under the sardine label.

Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures

Although subsidies are widely used in many sectors of the fishery industry in a number of countries, they have seldom given rise to countervailing measures.

Fish and fish products were excluded from the Uruguay Round's Agreement on Agriculture and the Agreement on Subsidies would therefore seem to govern fisheries sector subsidies. The Agreement on Agriculture contains regulations dealing with subsidies in the agriculture sector, which are less stringent or allow more delay in implementation, than the rules of the Subsidies Agreement.
Subsidies in fisheries have been singled out in the Doha declaration to be included in the new negotiations. Historically, subsidies have often been linked to governmental support to construction or operation of fishing vessels but also to aquaculture production, for example of salmon.

Agreement on Implementation of Article VI of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) 1994 (Anti-Dumping)

In contrast to the SPS and TBT measures, anti-dumping measures have not been much applied in international fish trade. One of the few cases known was for imports of Norwegian Atlantic salmon into the USA.

Agreement on Import Licensing Procedures

Import licences and import quotas for fish and fishery products are still widely used by a majority of developing countries. Moreover, important markets such as Japan and the EU use them for some products.

Agreement on Safeguards

Of the three principal importers, only the EU uses safeguard measures for its domestic industry against imports of fishery products. The European Community Common Market Organisation regulation provides for two types of safeguard measures: a safeguard clause and a reference price system.

Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs)

The TRIPs Agreement relates to intellectual property rights over plant varieties, animal breeds, related technologies and germplasm. Although the TRIPs Agreement so far has had only limited implications for trade in fishery products, the importance of TRIPs is expected to increase in line with the projected growth in aquaculture and the possible use of biotechnologies in production.

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