WTO Rules Against U.S. in Turtle Case

March 14, 1998
AP Economics Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A U.S. trade ban designed to protect endangered sea turtles violates global trade rules, the World Trade Organization determined in a preliminary ruling.

The draft decision by a three-member WTO hearing panel, if not changed, would represent a victory for several Asian nations who challenged a U.S. ban on shrimp imports from nations not adequately protecting sea turtles.

While the decision has not been made public, a consumer group reported the finding Friday and U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the preliminary ruling had gone against the United States.

These officials said the three-member WTO panel had ruled on very narrow grounds and the United States planned to challenge the decision.

"We simply disagree with the reasoning applied in the case," one of the officials said. "We are going to fight the panel decision to gain an outcome that we feel better represents the facts."

The dispute involves a ban imposed by the United States on sale of shrimp caught without special devices designed to protect endangered sea turtles.

Shrimp fishermen in the United States are required to use the turtle-excluder devices on their trawl nets to prevent turtle drownings, the largest cause of sea-turtle deaths. Environmentalists have contended that failure to equip shrimp nets with the turtle-excluder devices results in the death of 150,000 turtles a year worldwide.

Thailand, Malaysia, India and Pakistan challenged the U.S. ban in a case before the Geneva-based WTO, the referee for global trade disputes. The four countries claimed that the U.S. ban was being applied in a discriminatory manner and really represented an unfair trade barrier.

Chris McGinn, Deputy Director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, said the turtle ruling is just the latest WTO decision that has gone against environmental interests.

"This is one more attack by the WTO on environmental law. The WTO favors trade over all other values," McGinn said. "This puts the United States in the position of changing U.S. law or facing economic sanctions."

In its case, the United States argued that the trade embargo was necessary to protect the turtles because they are threatened with extinction and other measures do not provide sufficient protection.

The United States in 1996 lost another environmental fight before the WTO over the issue of whether a U.S. regulation unfairly discriminated against imported gasoline. In that dispute, brought by Venezuela and Brazil, the Environmental Protection Agency ended up changing its regulations to end what the two countries claimed was the discriminatory treatment.