The WTO, Free Trade and Sea Turtles

In March 1998, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that a US trade ban designed to protect endangered sea turtles violates global trade rules. The US ban was placed on the import of wild shrimp from nations not adequately protecting sea turtles.

Most species of sea turtles have been given endangered status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the United States and the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) worldwide. The CITES has listed five of the world's seven sea turtle species as "threatened by extinction [and] affected by trade". The Kemp's ridley sea turtle is considered the most endangered. The Earth Island Institute (EII) estimates that 500-1000 nesting females are left. They all nest on the same beach on the Gulf Coast of Mexico and migrate along the eastern coast of the United States as far as New York during the spring and summer. EII estimates that 40,000 nested at the same location in 1947.

There are multiple man-made causes that have led to the depletion of sea turtles. Commercial development in coastal areas has harmed their nesting habitats on beaches. General pollution of the oceans has been a cause as evidenced by plastic and oil debris found in dead turtles' intestines. Hunting turtles for their skins (to make shoes, purses, boots, etc.) and shells (to make combs, eyeglass frames, cigarette lighters, etc.) has reduced their numbers. The trade issue brought to the WTO involves another cause.

Environmental groups estimate that 150,000 sea turtles per year are killed by shrimp fishers who use nets not adequate for protecting sea turtles. EII also claims that these nets capture 10 pounds of marine life other than shrimp for every 1 pound of shrimp caught. EII, among other groups, claims these shrimpers need more "targeted" nets.

Shrimpers in the United States are required to use more "targeted nets" that are equipped with Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs). A TED allows turtles and other marine life to swim free through an escape hatch. EII claims that studies show TEDs save 97% of turtles from shrimp nets and cost between $50-$350 per net. A provision in the Endangered Species Act requires all US shrimpers to use TEDs effectively and bans the import of wild caught shrimp that are caught without effective protection for sea turtles. Seventeen nations followed the US and adopted a similar policy. In December 1995, various environmental groups won a hearing at the US Court of International Trade compelling the government to enforce the import ban. In 1998, the WTO panel did not agree with this ban.

The WTO, established in 1995, has become the authoritative body on world trade with over 120 member nations. The United States is one of many nations that agreed to be a part of this organization. WTO regulations state that all member nations must "ensure the conformity of their laws, regulations and administrative procedures" with WTO rules. When conflicts occur between one nation's laws and those of the WTO, other nations can bring the case to the WTO. A panel of three trade experts who mostly meet in secret makes WTO rulings. A ruling can only be overturned by a unanimous vote of all member nations. Failure to comply with a ruling results in financial penalties.The primary "rule" of the WTO is to reduce protectionism and increase trade among nations.

The three trade experts who decided the sea turtle ruling were from Hong Kong, Brazil and Germany. Shrimp from Brazil had previously been banned because US officials felt their shrimping methods had not been protecting sea turtles adequately. Both Hong Kong and Germany reserved third party rights to this case. The EII states this means they are interested parties in the outcome of the case.

Thailand, Pakistan, Malaysia and India brought this case to the WTO claiming the shrimp ban was an unfair trade barrier. The US argued that sea turtles are threatened with extinction and no other measure protects them adequately. The ruling against the US requires that the US lift their ban by changing the provision in the Endangered Species Act or pay compensation to the other nations for lost trade. The National Fisheries Institution estimates the figure for "lost trade" to be between $200-500 million annually.

In January 1996, the WTO ordered the US to reduce Clean Air standards on imported gasoline to allow imports from Venezuela and Brazil. In May 1997, WTO ruled that the European Union (EU) could not ban beef treated with hormones from the United States. In March 1998, the WTO ruled that the US cannot restrict imports of shrimp that were caught in a manner the US has deemed not safe for sea turtles. Other cases that may be brought to the WTO include the US challenging the EU's ban on fur caught with leghold traps; and US, Canada and Brazil challenging the EU's "eco-labels", particularly labels that certify wood and paper products as being produced in an ecologically sound manner. (Bleifus, Joel, "Taking Care of Business, In These Times, July 28, 1997)

-Do you agree or disagree with the WTO's shrimp ban decision? Explain - using one-half -one page.

-What might be the implications of this ruling? Or in other words, if future decisions are similar, how would you describe what is happening overall?