New Delhi: India’s opposition to a proposed agreement to end fisheries subsidies at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Buenos Aires that led to a collapse of the negotiations may be linked to a potential adverse political fallout in India’s coastal states, said a trade expert on condition of anonymity.

A deal on fisheries subsidy was seen to be low-hanging fruit at the WTO’s 11th ministerial conference (MC11), unlike India’s demand for a permanent solution on public stockholding for food security that failed to make headway as the US refused to engage on the matter.

The 164 member countries of the multilateral trade body could only finalize a work programme on fisheries subsidies to finalize a deal by 2019 as India opposed any interim deal to restrict illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

India did not agree to an interim outcome as many elements concerning interests of developing countries were not defined clearly, said the expert.

“Since countries have territorial sovereignty till EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), according to international rules, India insisted to protect its fishing rights till that point. There was no urgency to rush for an interim agreement," he added.

Developed countries claim that fisheries subsidies, estimated to be in tens of billions of dollars annually, create significant distortions in global fish markets and are a major factor contributing to overfishing and overcapacity and the depletion of fishes.

Developing countries such as India want to protect subsidies for low-income, resource-poor fishermen for whom it is a matter of livelihood and that constitute a significant electorate in coastal belt states in Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.

A deal is mostly targeted at China, which is the largest catcher and exporter of fish and provides huge domestic subsidy to its fishermen. India is a distant seventh among top fish exporters and does not indulge in IUU fishing.

Initially, India had proposed special and differential treatment for its artisanal fishermen that would have allowed it to continue to supply fuel subsidy within the territorial waters, which is within 12 nautical miles from the coast. It subsequently changed its stand, demanding a carve-out for all of its fishermen allowing them to fish till the EEZ, which is 200 nautical miles from the coast.

An Indian trade diplomat speaking under condition of anonymity said India’s changed stand took even developed countries by surprise as India does not have fishing interest till EEZ. “We should have played our cards better not to take the blame," he added.

European Union trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström on 13 December after the MC11 tweeted: “At the @WTO #MC11 meeting, members cannot even agree to stop subsidizing illegal fishing. Horrendous. The EU tried really hard, but destructive behaviour by several large countries made results impossible. How did we end up here?"

In the absence of an agreement, WTO members decided to continue to engage constructively in the fisheries subsidies negotiations with a view to adopting an agreement on comprehensive and effective disciplines by the ministerial conference in 2019 that “prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU-fishing, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing country members and least developed country members should be an integral part of these negotiations," a WTO ministerial statement said.

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