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April 7, 1998


WTO ruling favours India against US in shrimp case

Send this story to a friend The Clinton administration has questioned the World Trade Organisation's ruling on India's petition against the United States' insistence that shrimps exported to the US should be caught in shrimp nets fitted with "turtle excluder devices" (TED).

The WTO panel yesterday declared that the US law, which was put in place in 1989 apparently to conserve endangered sea turtles, violated international trade rules.

The WTO ruled yesterday that sea turtles endangered by shrimp fishers cannot be used as an excuse for trade discrimination. A WTO dispute panel in Geneva said the US had no right to ban imports from Asian shrimp traders who failed to take measures to prevent sea turtles being killed.

"We believe the WTO panel reached the wrong conclusion," US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said in Washington on Monday, April 6, night, adding it "does not affect our efforts to protect endangered sea turtles."

She said the panel challenged only one aspect of the US law that conditioned shrimp imports on the adoption by the exporting country of a specific sea turtle conservation policy which required the use of TEDs in trawling for shrimp.

India, Pakistan, Thailand, and Malaysia, which challenged the American law, had alleged that the US applied it in a discriminatory manner and it represented an unfair trade barrier.

According to The New York Times, the Clinton administration officials, who had expected the ruling, said they are likely to appeal. But they said several other options were also under consideration -- including simply disregarding the report, which could lead to fines for countervailing trade barriers against the offenders of the turtle protection law.

The trade organisation has no power to overturn a US law. If the administration does not win on appeal, it may try to change the shrimp import rules to accommodate yesterday's ruling, although officials said they were unsure how they would accomplish that.

The US policy, which India had successfully challenged, requires that wild shrimp imported into the united states come from countries which use teds. It prohibits shrimp imports from countries which do not use TEDs in their fishing fleets.

According to reports, the Geneva panel found that even under the provisions of the WTO agreement that allow environmental exceptions, the United States would not be permitted to force other nations to adopt policies to protect an endangered species like the turtle.

Minister for press in the Indian embassy in Washington Shiv Mukherjee, however, called his country's petition to the WTO, joined by Thailand, Pakistan, and Malaysia, "a matter of principle" in opposing trade barriers.

He was quoted in The New York Times today having said that "shrimp exports are one of our significant items on our export list. Shrimping is a labour intensive industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people." The acceptance of the US demand would have had a significant impact on the industry, he added.

Several environmental groups, including the World Wildlife Fund took strong exception to the WTO decision and said it had given preference to commercial concerns over the protection of a species and was "a blow against endangered sea turtles."

They held a joint press conference in Washington yesterday to present their case for the protection of sea turtles. It was attended by Dr Deborah Crouse, senior conservation scientist, and Tim Eichenberg, programme counsel from the Centre for Marine Conservation; Bill Snape, Defenders of Wildlife; David Schorr, senior programme officer, World Wildlife Fund; John Audley, programme coordinator, trade and environment, National Wildlife Federation; and Brenan van Dyke, director, trade and environment programme, Centre for International Environment Law.

The World Wildlife Fund characterised the WTO ruling as a decision that "virtually ignores international environmental law and the means by which it is developed. The WTO pays repeated lip service to the importance of making trade rules and environmental policies mutually supportive."

Its statement said "the shrimp-turtle ruling is the starkest sign to date that the WTO action on its own is not equal to this task"'

Shrimp fishermen in the United States are required to use the turtle excluder devices on their trawl nets to prevent turtles from drowning -- 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.

The World Wildlife Fund has publicly urged the US administration to ignore the WTO ruling and continue enforcing sanctions against countries that do not protect sea turtles from shrimpers.

"The implication of the decision is that free trade interests override environmental protection efforts in all cases, despite provisions written into trade rules that allow for consideration of environmental concerns," said John Audley.

"We have a tremendous global environmental problem today, and it's called the WTO," said Bill Snape. He called shrimping the most ecologically wasteful and destructive fishing practice in the world because of the number of other species that get caught in shrimp nets.

Thousands of sea turtles are drowned each year in Asian waters after becoming trapped in shrimp nets. Some 12,000 Ridley turtles have been washed up on the coasts of Orissa state in India this year.

Sea turtles are listed as endangered species under US environmental laws and under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

The law also prohibits import into the US of any shrimp harvested by countries that do not have similar laws requiring use of TEDs. Eighteen other countries adopted similar requirements after the US law was enacted in 1989, but do not enforce embargoes against countries that do not use teds, the groups said.

That embargo provision was challenged in the WTO by India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Thailand, with 25 other nations listed as interested parties.

Yesterday's action by the WTO dispute panel finalises an interim ruling issued in March. The United States has 60 days to appeal. Otherwise it must change the law or negotiate fines to pay to the WTO.


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