WTO Ruling on US ‘Dolphin Safe’ Tuna Label is a Mixed Bag

False Claims by Mexico and Other Nations Shouldn’t Weaken Label’s Standards

A World Trade Organization (WTO) decision on the “Dolphin Safe” tuna label has been making headlines lately, leading to speculation about what it means for the status of the label and the standards the tuna industry require to maintain to be eligible for it.

The label in question.

The international trade body’s decision has several good aspects, but it also muddied things.  A clarification is needed.

Backing up a bit, the WTO dispute panel ruled last week that the U.S. “Dolphin Safe” labels on tuna products could be overly burdensome and restrictive of trade, although the panel also ruled that the goals of the labels were legitimate, setting up a direct conflict between free trade and protection of the environment. The ruling stems from a 2009 complaint filed by the government of Mexico on behalf of a handful of Mexican tuna millionaires. The “Dolphin Safe” label in the U.S. can only be used for tuna that was not caught by chasing and netting dolphins, nor can the label be used if dolphins are killed or seriously injured. Mexico claims these restrictions to protect dolphins discriminate against the Mexican tuna industry.

The Mexican government is now claiming that WTO ruled in their favor, but in fact the decision is more mixed. While the ruling did say that America’s dolphin safe rules were more restrictive than they needed to be to protect dolphins, it also said that the US rules don’t discriminate against the Mexican fishing industry specifically.

Let me be clear, the ruling doesn’t mean that tuna caught by chasing and netting dolphins is going to be sold under the “Dolphin Safe” label in the near future. 

Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) and our coalition of groups working to protect dolphins are urging the Obama administration to appeal the decision within the WTO. Furthermore, Congress would have to change US law to allow tuna from Mexico, caught by chasing, netting and drowning dolphins, to be sold using a "Dolphin Safe" label.


A little background on why we need the “Dolphin Safe” tuna label. Schools of tuna often swim around with dolphins in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETPO), a large area running from Southern California to Peru and extending out into the Pacific Ocean almost to Hawai’i.  (See parts of the infamous dolphin-killing video that sparked a nationwide tuna boycott in the 1980s in this OdyseeTV profile of Sam LaBudde.)

Mexico and several other countries allow their tuna industry to deliberately target, chase and surround the dolphins with nets in order to get to the tuna.  More than 7 million dolphins have been killed since this fishing method was introduced in 1957.

In 1990, the US adopted a law intended to protect dolphins by encouraging consumers to buy tuna products packaged as “Dolphin Safe.”

Earth Island Institute, which was instrumental in getting the law passed, maintains the integrity of the labeling. Earth Island’s standards require that in order to be labeled “Dolphin Safe,” the tuna being sold has to be caught by other methods, such as using nets to encircle schools of tuna unaccompanied by dolphins, or using the old bait-boat method of chumming for tuna and catching them on hooks and lines.

More than 90 percent of the world’s tuna industry adheres to Earth Island’s “Dolphin Safe” standards. Mexico, which invested heavily in tuna fishing in the 1980s, has long been arguing that the US rules led the major processed tuna brands sold in America to exclude its products. After years of protests and legal action (which Earth Island has consistently won), Mexico brought the issue to the WTO in 2009.

The Decision:

Three trade representatives chosen by the WTO made the final decision after listening to Mexico and the US and poring through written materials.  Earth Island Institute, the Humane Society of the US, and other groups helped in providing the US with legal and biological information.

The decision establishes that the US objectives of avoiding any harm to dolphins are legitimate.  Further, the decision states that Mexico’s method of catching dolphins in nets does NOT meet the US objectives. So claims that Mexico will now be allowed to sell their tuna in the US under the “Dolphin Safe” label are simply smoke and mirrors.

The panel’s decision takes it a step further. It suggests that the US “Dolphin Safe” program does not meet the objective of keeping dolphins safe either, because the US does not have the same restrictions and requirements in place for tuna caught in other parts of the world apart from the ETPO. 

It is a very rare event that dolphins are harmed in tuna fisheries outside of the ETPO, but the WTO panel felt this was an issue.  If anything, this decision should strengthen the US “Dolphin Safe” tuna label by increasing regulation and tracking of tuna from other ocean areas.  And though the WTO panel claims that the label is mandatory, the US law clearly states that applying for the “Dolphin Safe” label is voluntary.

What Next?

The dispute panel decision is not the final word on the subject.  Either the US or Mexico can appeal the decision, which would likely take several more years to resolve in the WTO.  Furthermore, the WTO decision, if upheld, could not be implemented unless the US Congress agrees.

Earth Island Institute and our Dolphin Safe/Fair Trade Coalition of environmental and animal welfare organizations are now urging the Obama administration to appeal those parts of the decision that went against the US. 

We also maintain that the Congress should not change our standards for the “Dolphin Safe” label.  This label has saved millions of dolphins from drowning in tuna nets and should not be weakened due to trade bias and false claims by Mexico and other nations.

Click here to find out more about Earth Island’s “Dolphin Safe” program.

Mark Palmer is Associate Director of Earth Island Institute's International Marine Mammal Project

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