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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI professor advises World Trade Organization negotiators on fisheries issues

Media Contact: Todd McLeish, 401-874-7892

KINGSTON, R.I -- June 1, 2005 -- When trade negotiators from around the world gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, last month for trade discussions, University of Rhode Island economist Cathy Roheim was there to help them understand the complicated issues related to international trade in fisheries.

“The WTO doesn’t like subsidies, but there are a number of subsidies in fisheries trade, which often lead to overfishing,” said Roheim, a professor of environmental and natural resource economics from Jamestown. “Some of the smaller countries like Sri Lanka don’t have negotiators who are well versed in fisheries issues, so the WTO brought in a handful of fisheries trade experts from around the world to educate the negotiators and address important points they don’t know about.”

A key concept that the fisheries experts tried to get across was that there are good subsidies and bad subsidies that could dramatically impact the health of a fishery. An example of a good subsidy, according to Roheim, is a fishing vessel buy-back program aimed at reducing the number of fishing boats on the water and reducing the potential for overfishing. On the other hand, a bad subsidy would be government-backed low-interest loans for construction or purchase of new fishing boats, because that leads to overfishing.

Roheim’s unique expertise is in eco-labeling of fish products, which provides consumers with a mechanism for knowing that the fish they purchase was caught from a sustainable fishery, one that is managed so future generations will be able to fish from that fishery as well.

“I believe that eco-labeling can be a way of using the market to enhance fisheries management without it being a trade barrier. Eco-labels can be used to discourage overfishing and illegal fishing,” explained Roheim. “The WTO has agreed that current ecolabeling programs aren’t a trade barrier because they’re voluntary programs that aren’t run by any one government. They may even be a way to discourage illegal fishing on the high seas.”

One obstacle to effective trade negotiations over fisheries is that fish are lumped into the category of “industrial products,” so it’s very difficult for negotiators to adequately address the intricacies of fisheries management while discussing steel, automobiles and other industrial products.

“Clearly fisheries are different than steel,” said Roheim. “If we can pull fisheries out of the industrial product group, as the WTO did with agriculture in the last trade rounds, it may allow for the possibility of retaining some of the good trade barriers that encourage sustainability of fisheries and getting rid of some of the bad ones.”

The goal of Roheim’s visit to Geneva was to help the negotiators work toward developing an agreement on ideas that can be implemented to lift some trade barriers and implement some others. For instance, one recommendation was to establish import and export licenses on illegally caught fish products like what is currently in place for Caspian Sea caviar to ensure it is caught legally.

“Trade negotiators come from a totally different world from what I’m used to,” said Roheim, who chuckled that the first step in any negotiation was to negotiate the rules for negotiating. “There are all sorts of words and phrases that you just don’t use in diplomatic negotiations because they raise red flags with one country or another. But we were still able to reach a number of people and give them a better understanding of these important issues.

“The experience was one that I’ll look on as a highlight of my career,” she said.