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GLOBEFISH - Information and Analysis on World Fish Trade

WTO Environmental Database: A tool to track sustainability measures affecting fish trade

A new online database (https://edb.wto.org/) is available to track trade and environmental measures and policies of over 160 World Trade Organization (WTO) members. With search functionalities to filter data by member/country, sector (e.g. fisheries), objective (e.g. sustainable fisheries management) and type of measure, this dataset offers a useful tool for policy makers, private sector and other interested stakeholders.

The relationship between trade and sustainable development has received increased attention with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For the fisheries sector, SDG 14 (“Life below Water”) is of particular relevance. There are several trade-related targets in SDG 14 and trade itself is considered as a means of implementation of the SDGs. The founding objectives of WTO include sustainable development. The WTO has a specific forum to examine the relationship between trade and environmental measures to promote sustainable development, the Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE).

The CTE has served as the forum to discuss issues ranging from the market access effects of environmental policies such as environmental standards, packaging and labelling requirements, especially in relation to developing countries exports, and how trade can contribute to addressing specific environmental challenges such as illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. One of the issues that have been high on the global agenda with respect to fish trade, the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations, was born out of discussions in the CTE. WTO members are working hard to conclude these negotiations by the end of the year before the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference in Kazakhstan planned for June 2020.

Information is key, whether it is for fisheries subsidies or for other ongoing work. For over two decades now, WTO members have been submitting notifications of trade policies and measures that are related to the environment. WTO members are concerned about conservation or environmental degradation and its consequences and are adopting new trade policies in support of sustainability, in the form of environmental taxes, regulations or support programmes.

In order to ensure transparency and to keep abreast of these developments, CTE members mandated the WTO Secretariat to compile and annually update the WTO Environmental Database (EDB), collating all environment-related measures notified to WTO. The database also includes environment-related entries found in Trade Policy Reviews (TPRs), which are periodic transparency exercises every WTO member must undergo. The EDB has recently been updated and relaunched with a wealth of information regarding trade measures adopted for environmental purposes.

The information has been systematized based on harmonized categories covering the environmental objective pursued, the type of trade measure adopted and the sectors affected by the notified measures and programmes. More than 10 000 measures and 7 000 TPR entries are available in a user-friendly online portal, providing a powerful tool to better understand environmental trade measures and requirements in foreign markets. An increasing number of environment-related trade measures is affecting the fisheries sector. Since 2009, 61 WTO members have notified over 550 measures affecting the fisheries sector. In the last five years, 75 new measures have on average been notified each year. The European Union, with 165 measures from 2009 to 2017, has the most notified EDB measures affecting the fisheries sector, followed by the United States of America, Philippines, Canada and Mexico. These measures have been notified by WTO members at all levels of development and from all regions of the world. 

Most types of measures affecting the fisheries sector notified from 2009 onwards were support measures, usually in the form of grants and direct payments for fishing effort reduction, acquiring more precision nets and fishing equipment to avoid bycatch, fleet modernization and energy efficient vessels, and support for sustainable fishing and aquaculture practices. Other measures often notified are environmental requirements in the form of import and export licence requirements, technical regulations, and conformity assessment procedures or outright bans.

One concrete example is a draft technical regulation (TBT measure) notified by Mexico in 2017 establishing “specifications for the responsible aquaculture production of Pacific bluefin tuna (Thunnus orientalis) in floating cages in the waters of the Pacific Ocean”. Another example (SPS measure) notified to the WTO in 2016 is the “Draft Philippines National Standard Code of Good Aquaculture Practices for Oysters and Mussels” which addresses food safety, environmental integrity, and socio-economic welfare concerns associated with aquaculture production in brackish and marine waters. An important aspect of the notification of such trade and environmental requirements is that, under WTO rules, the SPS or TBT measures should be notified in their draft format, allowing sufficient time for WTO members and stakeholders to provide comments, raise concerns and offer alternatives that might have a lesser impact on their business models.

Even after the measure is adopted, WTO rules also require a reasonable period of time before the requirements come into force to allow economic operators to adapt and comply. In that sense, such increased transparency provides a valuable tool for stakeholders to keep track of regulatory changes affecting their sector and have their voices heard. In terms of objectives, there are almost 430 notified measures in the EDB with “sustainable fisheries management” as the underlying environmentrelated objective. Sustainable fisheries management is being pursued through a wide range of policy instruments including grants and direct payments, loans and financing, non-monetary support, technical regulations, bans, prohibitions, licensing requirements, and transit regulations among others. 

Apart from sustainable fisheries management, there are other objectives cited in the notified measures affecting the fisheries sector. Such is the case of measures that seek to protect biodiversity or for natural resource conservation, e.g. to avoid the negative impacts of fishing on marine mammals and endangered species. For instance, a measure notified by the Republic of Korea in 2017 excluded some endangered shark species from the list of approved food products imported into the country. 

With respect to TPRs, the growing number of database entries affecting the fisheries sector is evidence of the mutual supportiveness and the intertwining of trade, fisheries and environmental policies. The EDB contains over 540 environmental TPR entries related to the fisheries sector and this number has been increasing rapidly over the last five years. WTO members are increasingly including environment-related concerns in their fisheries trade policy frameworks. For example, Sierra Leone has developed a Policy Framework for Fisheries with the goal of turning fisheries into an ecologically sustainable and economically viable sector. In effect, from 2009–2017 around 75 percent of WTO members that underwent an analysis of their trade policy frameworks included at least one environmental concern or measure related to their fisheries sector.

The EU28 had the highest number of TPR entries on fisheries, followed by Japan, Belize, Morocco, Malaysia and Fiji. In terms of specific measures in these TPRs, the majority relates to fishing quotas, catch certification schemes and bilateral or regional fisheries management agreements to sustainably manage fisheries. Other measures included penalties for violations, bans or licensing requirements, and support schemes. Based on the transparency pillar of WTO’s work, the EDB provides a wealth of data that is publicly available and can be easily accessed. These examples merely provide a flavour of the wide range and depth of information available in the database. As WTO members continue to notify and adopt policies for trade to contribute to the sustainable development of their fisheries sector and more broadly to the blue economy, the WTO’s EDB will continue to fulfil its purpose of offering a comprehensive, reliable transparency tool to allow stakeholders to keep wellinformed of developments.

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