Chile and EU caught in dispute over swordfish

by Gustavo Capdevila

Geneva, 12 Dec 2000 (IPS) - The Dispute Settlement Body of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Tuesday agreed to establish a special panel to decide on an environmental dispute between the European Union (EU) and Chile that revolves around the swordfishing industry.

The EU, which had initially filed the case as one involving a conflict of trade interests only, tried unsuccessfully for a last-minute accord that encompasses some of the conservation arguments wielded by Chile and backed by environmental groups.

The DSB setting up a panel was automatic, the request by the EC for a panel coming before it for the second time. During the session, Australia, Canada, Ecuador, Iceland, India, Norway and the United States announced their interest in the panel process as third parties.

The EU complaint on Chileís 1991 regulation that bans the docking of any swordfishing boats in the South American nationís ports.

The Santiago ban was made for environmental reasons, as the shoals of this variety of fish are diminishing at an alarming rate, according to estimates by environmental organisations.

The EU filed a complaint to defend a fleet of six Spanish fishing boats that capture this large migratory species in the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

The Chilean prohibits the unloading, storage, transport or import of swordfish, even if they are caught within the nationís territorial waters.

The EU complains that Chileís ban prevents fishing boats flying European flags and operating in the southeast Pacific from unloading swordfish in Chilean ports as well as their storage or transfer to other boats.

The European Commission, the EUís executive body, told the WTO that the Chilean policy hurts competition in the industry and causes losses to the EUís industry.

Ideally, fishing companies from Spain that catch swordfish in the southeast Pacific would be able to place their fresh product on the United States market.

The Chilean government, under President Ricardo Lagos, bases its stance on the over-exploitation of swordfish occurring in international waters. Even within the 200-mile economic jurisdiction of the Chilean coast, there are strict regulations in place to prevent the devastation of the fish population.

Chileís goal is to pressure other nationsí boats fishing beyond the 200-mile limit to pursue the activity in a responsible, transparent and regulated manner, according to officials.

International environmental organisations came out in force to defend Chileís stance. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) chastised the European Commission for caving in to Spainís pressures, despite the environmental harm caused by swordfishing.

The European bloc grants priority to its economic interests to the detriment of the survival of a threatened species, emphasised environmental leaders. In response to the environmentalistsí pressures, the EUís Trade Commissioner, Pascal Lamy, and Agriculture and Fishing Commissioner, Franz Fischler, attempted to hammer out an agreement with Chile that would prevent the need for the WTO to set up a special panel.

Lamy and Fischler, in a letter to Heraldo Munoz, Chileís deputy minister of Foreign Relations, declared that the European Union would prefer a solution that involves a requirement for sustainable fishing.† Chileís trade negotiator, Alejandro Jara, acknowledged that Santiago had received their proposal and that his government had sent a response, and now awaits the European Commissionís reaction. The Chilean diplomat said he thought there was room for an agreement within the EU proposal, and that both sides share the same objective: preserving the swordfish population with the minimum impact on trade, and an aim to achieve sustainable development of fish resources.