Free trade vs. the sea turtle Geneva conference: U.S. must prod World Trade Organization to better protect natural resources.

May 18, 1998

THE PREDICTED clash between environmental protection and free trade under the new World Trade Organization has become reality. Free trade appears to be the winner over endangered species.

A WTO tribunal in Geneva last month sanctioned the United States for upholding a 1989 law that bans shrimp imports from countries whose fishermen fail to protect endangered sea turtles by using nets with escape hatches. South Asian countries complained that the United States violated the free trade agreement by insisting on a certain method of capture.

Indeed, the WTO permits countries to make laws conserving natural resources, but does not allow nations to dictate how another produces a good if the result is the same. In other words, shrimp is shrimp.

When the United States agreed to join the WTO in 1994, it assured the public that the treaty would balance the interests of free trade and environmental protection.

The WTO decision indicates otherwise. The U.S. law protecting turtles does not impose an expensive, unfair burden on shrimp trawlers of poor nations. Turtle-excluder grills for nets cost less than $100; the U.S. is aiding countries in adopting these devices.

This episode echoes the international conflict over a U.S. law that banned tuna imports from countries whose fishers used methods that killed too many dolphins. Mexico won a 1991 decision from the (pre-WTO) General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade commission that the law requiring dolphin-safe tuna fishing was illegal. Efforts to resolve that conflict have leaned toward developing nations' fishing industry, even though the United States is by far the largest canned tuna market.

Drowning in shrimp nets is a major reason for the decline of sea turtle populations worldwide. The United States should take strong steps to remedy this global trade inequity, holding fast to its shrimp-net law and pushing the WTO to review and revise its skewed standards. The WTO ministerial meeting today in Geneva is the place for the United States to make a stand, and not to turn turtle.

Pub Date: 5/18/98

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