Sea Turtle Conservation: An `Illegal` Trade Barrier?

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Courtesy of IOS Press

In fisheries around the globe, by-catch is a serious threat to marine organisms. By-catch includes both non-target species (e.g. fish, seabirds, turtles and marine mammals) and immature individuals of the target species. Experts estimate that discarded by-catch accounts for around 30 per cent of the global catch.1 Several international agree- ments have addressed the issue of by-catch, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the 1992 Earth Summit’s Agenda 21 and the 1999 Sixth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species. Despite these calls for selective fishing practices and minimizing by-catch, these non-binding agreements did little to decrease the 17.9–39.5 million tons of non- target species caught each year.2 Despite the major environmental damage inflicted by non-selective fishing practices, the problem of by-catch has generally failed to capture the public imagination. By- catch is not visible to consumers and the usual victim, fish, is  not  highly  charismatic.  When  the  victims  are  highly charismatic animals, such as sea turtles or dolphins, the US public is much more likely to demand conservation measures. In the case of sea turtles, the unilateral applica- tion of US environmental law created international trade disputes brought before the World Trade Organization. Despite the WTO’s original finding that the US law vio- lated the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT),  the USA’s actions ultimately led to cooperative global efforts to protect endangered sea turtles.

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