Defending Endangered Sea Turtles from Shrimp Trawling

The World Trade Organization is responsible for administering the rules of the international trade system and for resolving trade disputes that may arise between its member countries. In 1997, a dispute arose at the WTO over a US law designed to protect endangered sea turtles.

Each year, thousands of sea turtles are killed in shrimp trawl nets. To protect these endangered species, the United States had passed a law requiring nations catching wild shrimp and exporting them to the US, the second largest market for shrimp in the world at the time, to be certified as having adopted specific conservation measures. These measures obligated shrimp trawls to be equipped with “turtle-excluder devices,” which are simple, inexpensive metal grids that permit sea turtles to escape shrimp nets.

The US measure was challenged at the WTO by India, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Thailand. These countries argued that the law was an illegal restriction on their shrimp exports and thus contravened WTO obligations. In response, the United States argued that their measure was covered by Article XX of the GATT, exempting WTO members from their trade obligations in order to protect human, animal, and plant life (Art.XX(b)) or conserve natural resources (Art.XX (g)) when deemed necessary.

In the course of the dispute settlement proceedings, CIEL and partner NGOs, including the Center for Marine Conservation, submitted an amicus curiae brief to the WTO. The brief provided the WTO with scientific information about the plight of endangered sea turtles and introduced legal arguments supporting the interpretation of WTO rules in light of international environmental law principles for sustainable development. In addition, the brief highlighted the need for civil society participation in the WTO dispute settlement system.

The WTO dispute settlement panel rejected the amicus brief, denying civil society the right to participate in WTO dispute settlement proceedings. The panel also struck down the US measure on the grounds that it was not covered by the environmental exceptions in Article XX, and that the measure thus presented an arbitrary and unjustifiable restriction to international trade.

In early 1998, the United States appealed the panel’s decision. CIEL submitted a second amicus brief, this time on behalf of seven partner NGOs from around the world. The WTO Appellate Body upheld the panels’ decision to overturn the US measure. But the decision yielded a victory for civil society participation in the WTO: the Appellate Body accepted the CIEL brief and overturned the Panel’s ruling that submissions by civil society could not be considered. The decision thus marks a significant step forward in increasing openness and transparency at the WTO.