WASHINGTON -- With its hooked beak, scaly neck and stubby legs, the yard-long hawksbill sea turtle will win no beauty contests. But this homely creature, an endangered vestige of the dinosaur age, is suddenly at the center of a squall in U.S.-Japanese relations.
It does not have the grace of a dolphin, the majesty of a whale or the mournful appeal of a baby harp seal. But the hawksbill may prompt the first use of a U.S. law authorizing curbs on imports of fish and other wildlife products from countries that contribute to the disappearance of an endangered species.
Barring a last-minute breakthrough in negotiations, President Bush is likely to inform Congress by Sunday that the United States will impose sanctions on Japan for the sake of this rare turtle, senior administration officials said yesterday. It would be the first time the United States has used trade sanctions to
help protect an endangered species.
About 2,000 people in Japan are employed in a $125 million-a-year cottage industry that fashions expensive eyeglass frames, combs and jewelry from imported hawksbill shell, inaccurately known as tortoise shell. The raw material for these products is often gathered by ripping the shells from living turtles that are being slowly barbecued alive.
The dispute over trying to persuade these people to abandon their livelihood has highlighted the difficulties of accommodating environmental concerns in international trade.
Imposing the sanctions on Japan is a relatively easy political move for the administration. It wins friends in the environmental movement, costs no money, shows toughness on trade and cannot be labeled protectionist because the United States does not have a tortoise-shell industry.
It is illegal in the United States to sell tortoise-shell products made from hawksbill turtles. Plastic substitutes are commonly used.
Members of the Economic Policy Council, a Cabinet-level panel composed of Mr. Bush's inner circle on economic issues, have already reviewed the question of the hawksbill, Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher Sr. said. "They've decided absolutely that these sanctions will go into place" unless Japan agrees to close the industry quickly, he said.
A Japanese official in Washington said that no negotiations were under way but that ways to avoid the sanctions were being explored.
U.S. imports of Japanese fish totaled $353.8 million last year, the Commerce Department says, and imports of other wildlife products were far smaller.
The trade sanctions would consist of duties or a complete ban on any or all fish and wildlife products from Japan. There has been unconfirmed speculation in Washington that the United States might impose high duties on imported Japanese products that use wild pearls.