On April 10, 1996, the United States Court of International Trade (CIT) issued a landmark decision in Earth Island Institute v. Christopher. In this case, the CIT ordered the U.S. State, Commerce, and Treasury Departments to block the importation of shrimp from all nations that had not adopted adequate policies to protect sea turtles. Worldwide, over one hundred thousand sea turtles are killed each year as a result of shrimp-harvesting operations: the turtles drown trying to escape the shrimp nets. The CIT based its ruling on an interpretation of a 1989 amendment to the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), § 609.4 Section 609 created a shrimp "certification" program, wherein nations desiring to export shrimp to the U.S. must be certified by the U.S. government. The U.S. government can only provide this certification if the exporting nation can demonstrate that it harvests shrimp using methods that provide a level of protection to sea tuitles comparable to protection provided for under U.S. conservation laws. Absent proof of comparable turtle protection laws, the U.S. government is required to ban shrimp imports.
This article will explore the origins and likely implications of the CIT's ruling in Earth Island. First, it will examine the threat posed to sea turtles by international shrimp fishing practices, and the U.S. Congressional response to this threat. Next, it will summarize the history and outcome of the Earth Island decision. Finally, the article will discuss the emerging conflict between § 609 and the rules of international trade, in particular the rules established under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
15 UCLA J. of Envt'l. L. & Pol. 57 (1996)