Mexico’s Ten-Year Effort to Overturn the Dolphin Safe Tuna Label Ends in Defeat

Mexican tuna industry should get out of the dolphin-killing business, say marine mammal advocates.

The World Trade Organization issued a final ruling last week on the long running dispute between the US and Mexico over the US Dolphin Safe tuna label, declaring that the label does not “discriminate” against the Mexican tuna industry and is fully consistent with WTO rules.

two bottlenose dolphins
The Dolphin Safe label has helped save countless dolphins in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean — a large marine region running from Southern California to Peru and extending out into the Pacific Ocean almost to Hawai’i — where schools of tuna tend to swim along with dolphins. Photo by Willy Wonk/ Flickr.

The Friday, December 14, ruling by the WTO’s Appellate Panel finally ends a trade-dispute that has dragged on for 10 years. The Mexican government had initially filed a complaint with the WTO in 2008 saying that Dolphin Safe tuna-labeling regulations unfairly discriminated against Mexico by restricting its access to US markets.

The US Dolphin Safe label, established originally by Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project in 1990 and codified into law by the US Congress, prohibits use of the label for any tuna that was caught by intentional chase and capture of dolphins in tuna nets or for any tuna caught in nets in which dolphins are injured or killed. 

The label has helped save countless dolphins in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETPO) — a large marine region running from Southern California to Peru and extending out into the Pacific Ocean almost to Hawai’i  — where schools of tuna tend to swim along with dolphins. Mexico has the largest tuna fleet in the world that continues to deliberately target, chase, and surround the dolphins with nets in order to get to the tuna. The country’s tuna industry kills thousands of dolphins annually. 

The government of Mexico, on behalf of a handful of tuna millionaires, has repeatedly tried to overturn the Dolphin Safe label. It has been urging the WTO to block the US use of the label for canned tuna or award the label to the Mexican tuna industry as well, claiming that the restrictions required for label — which until recently only applied to tuna fishing in the ETPO region — discriminates against the Mexican tuna industry. Following years of arguing back and forth, in 2014, the US National Marine Fisheries Service extended the restrictions to tuna fisheries from all parts of the world.

Last week’s WTO ruling denying the Mexico’s efforts to weaken the US Dolphin Safe tuna label is definitely a win for conservationists and for the dolphins they have been fighting to protect.

 “At long last, the World Trade Organization has upheld the legality and scientific validity of the Dolphin Safe tuna label, David Phillips, executive director of Earth Island Institute and IMMP, said in a statement after the ruling. “This ruling should make clear that Mexico’s intentional chasing and netting of dolphins is illegitimate and must end. The vast majority of the world’s tuna industry has already stopped the chasing, netting, harassment, and killing of dolphins in tuna nets.  It’s time for Mexico to get out of the dolphin-killing business.”

More than 90 percent of the world tuna industry follows the Earth Island Dolphin Safe label standards of no encirclement of any dolphins during tuna fishing operations. Currently, only a few fishing boats, mostly from Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela, continue to chase and net dolphins in order to catch tuna.

IMMP, which maintains monitors around the world to check on tuna supplies and verify that the tuna is caught using dolphin safe methods, says that since the label was established, dolphin deaths from tuna fishing have declined 98 percent.

Phillips praised US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer and the lawyers of his office for their successful defense of the Dolphin Safe tuna label calling their actions “expert and unwavering”. 

The National Marine Fisheries Service too, worked diligently to put in place fishing regulations for uniform reporting and verifying Dolphin Safe standards without weakening the legal standards.

Tuna fishing, processing, and retail companies around the world deserve thanks for standing firm in support of Dolphin Safe fishing practices.  Many of these companies have worked closely with Earth Island since 1990 when it pioneered the development of the Dolphin Safe program. 

While the victory over the government of Mexico is a tremendous boost to the Dolphin Safe program, Phillips says we still have to ensure that tuna companies continue their compliance. 

For more information on Dolphin Safe tuna go to

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