WTO SHRIMP RULING HEIGHTENS ENVIRONMENT VS. TRADE DEBATE

WTO SHRIMP RULING HEIGHTENS ENVIRONMENT VS. TRADE DEBATE

A new World Trade Organization ruling is pushing the Clinton administration toward a broader effort to reconcile environmental and commercial goals.

The United States was notified Monday that U.S. sea turtle protection law violates WTO rules by blocking shrimp imports from countries that fail to adopt the U.S. approach to shrimp fishing. A U.S. appeal is likely within the next few months.The amount of imports involved is tiny - less than $10 million a year from the four countries that brought the case. But the ruling looms large for those who claim that the WTO will force changes to U.S. environmental, health and safety laws. Six of seven species of sea turtles are on the U.S. list endangered species, and the 1989 law was partly aimed at pressuring other countries to adopt U.S. protection measures. The law bans shrimp imports from countries that fail to mandate use of ''turtle excluder devices,'' a simple grate that fits over the mouth of shrimp trawling nets and prevents sea turtles from becoming trapped.

Lawsuits by environmentalists were necessary to enforce the law in the United States. It wasn't until 1996 that shrimp embargoes were placed on three countries - India, Pakistan and Malaysia. Thailand, which uses the excluder devices, joined the three others in a WTO challenge to resist the principle of the United States imposing regulations on its fishing fleet.

WTO rules generally prohibit such embargoes, and it was on that principle that a three-person dispute panel called for dropping that provision of the law, said a group of environmentalists at a press conference Monday condemning the ruling.

David Schorr, program director for the World Wildlife Fund, said the panel overlooked provisions in the WTO rules that permit exceptions to to protect human, plant or animal life, and to preserve exhaustible natural resources.

The Clinton administration is expected to appeal the WTO decision, but John Audley of the National Wildlife Federation says a longer-term reform to WTO decisions is needed. Last fall, in a list of promises aimed at gaining congressional votes for trade negotiating authority, President Clinton pledged to seek such a reform to exempt environmental laws from WTO scrutiny.

European Union trade commissioner Sir Leon Brittan has also called for a global meeting on environmental officials this fall to discuss reconciling the environment with trade liberalization.