Federal officials have found that Japan is jeopardizing survival of the endangered hawksbill sea turtle by continuing to import its lustrous shell for use in eyeglass frames, cigarette lighters and ornamental art.

The Interior and Commerce departments are expected to rule soon on recommendations by federal scientists that Japan be declared in violation of international treaties protecting endangered species. That step could lead to trade sanctions.

The hawksbill, one of eight species of sea turtle, lives in warm ocean waters around the planet, including the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

Since 1973, an international treaty governing trade in endangered species has prohibited hawksbill imports, but Japan has claimed an exception to the agreement on grounds that the turtle's shell is crucial to its centuries-old "bekko" -- or tortoise shell -- industry.

"These are animals that have gone through 25 or 30 years of life, they've reached sexual maturity, then they're being hacked off," said Jack Woody, sea turtle coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Woody said he recently toured a Japanese bekko factory, where "I saw them making bolo ties and cigarette lighters, and I fail to see the cultural value in that . . . They don't have a grasp or a concept of what kind of limited numbers of animals we're dealing with."

The hawksbill imports have become an embarrassment to a country whose leaders have heard similar complaints about Japan's fishing and whaling industries.

Yasuhiro Shimizu, environmental attache in the Japanese Embassy here, said in an interview that "we take the issue very seriously and we've tried to reduce the amount we import." He added, however, that people's "lives are totally dependent on this industry, so sometimes it's very difficult."

In its report to Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., Fish and Wildlife found that since 1981, "Japan has imported 234,000 hawksbill shells from more than 20 different countries and is expected to import 18,000 more during 1990."

If Lujan and Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher accept the agency's recommendation to "certify" Japan as a threat to the hawksbill, it would be up to President Bush to decide whether to penalize Japan by restricting imports of Japanese fish products. But federal officials said they hope to resolve the matter through negotiations.

"The issue is sending a clear message that this nation is going to uphold the Endangered Species Act," said Interior spokesman Steven Goldstein.

Conservationists consider the hawksbill and other sea turtle species among the most threatened varieties of marine life on the planet.

Poachers prize the large, ungainly creatures -- some varieties can weigh up to 1,000 pounds -- for their eggs and shells, while others become entangled in the nets of shrimp trawlers and fishing vessels.

While most countries have banned harvesting of hawksbills and other sea turtles, several -- including Cuba and the Solomon Islands -- continue to allow their capture, according to the Washington-based Center for Marine Conservation. Japan is the world's largest importer of hawksbills, which at maturity weigh 60 to 110 pounds.

"They are the most beautiful of the turtles," said the center's Marydele Donnelly. "When you look at the shells, they are a warm, brown color with mottled bits of gold shining through."

The 1973 treaty, called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), allows countries that sign the agreement to claim exceptions under certain circumstances.

But under U.S. law, officials said, any country that "is found to be undermining the effectiveness" of international endangered species programs can be targeted for trade sanctions.

"The object of our sanctions would be to have them lift their {exception} to the CITES," said Phil Williams, an ecologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, a Commerce Department agency that plans to join Fish and Wildlife in making the recommendation. "That effectively ends the trade and ends the industry."