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WTO Ruling on Mexican Tuna Fisheries Is a Blow for Dolphins

Conservationists denounce trade body ruling that US “Dolphin Safe” tuna-labeling rules discriminate against Mexico

In a setback for dolphins, the World Trade Organization ruled on Tuesday that the United States’ “Dolphin Safe” tuna-labeling regulations unfairly discriminates against Mexico by restricting its access to US markets and that Mexico can seek $163 million a year in trade tariffs against the US for economic damages.

photo of tuna cansPhoto by The Hamster Factor, Flickr On Tuesday the WTO ruled that Dolphin Safe tuna-labeling rules in the US discrimate against Mexico,  ending a long-running trade dispute between the two countries.

The decision is the latest development in a long-running trade dispute between the two countries that dates back to the establishment of the Dolphin Safe tuna label in 1990. Tuesday's ruling pretty much closes the case filed with the WTO by Mexico in 2008.

Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project, which established the labeling program and monitors tuna companies around the world for compliance, denounced the ruling, calling it a “a ploy to undermine the highly successful and popular” labeling program. It said that the trade body has consistently put trade considerations above environmental protections, working to overturn national laws around the world that are perceived to have any adverse impacts on trade.

“Shame on the WTO and shame on Mexico for trying to force dolphin deadly tuna back onto US supermarket shelves,” IMMP director David Phillips said in a statement. “Mexican fishermen should comply with the same Dolphin Safe label requirements that every other tuna fishing country uses. Chasing, netting, and killing dolphins is not Dolphin Safe and it never will be.”

The US government, too, criticized the ruling. "We are disappointed in the WTO Arbitrator's decision regarding US dolphin-safe labeling standards," a spokesperson for the US Trade Representative’s Office said in a statement made to the Associated Press. “Regrettably, the WTO Arbitrator's decision does not take into account the United States' most recent dolphin-safe labeling updates and dramatically overstates the actual level of trade effects on sales of Mexican tuna caught by intentionally chasing and capturing dolphins in nets.”

The office plans to consult Congress and other stakeholders about next steps.

The dolphin-safe 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 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. 

Dolphin pods are herded for miles by tuna speedboats, resulting in baby dolphins being left behind to starve or be eaten by predators. Mile-long purse seine nets are then used to surround the exhausted dolphins and the tuna that swim beneath. Many dolphins die from injuries, physiological stress, and drowning.  And the pod of dolphins can be chased and netted again and again during the year-round tuna fishery. More than 7 million dolphins have died after being trapped in nets since this fishing method was introduced in 1957.

In 1990, after years of campaigning by IMMP and other conservation groups, the US government established the Dolphin Safe tuna label. The label can only be used for tuna that is not caught by chasing and netting dolphins. It can’t be used if dolphins are killed or seriously injured during a tuna fishing expedition.

According to IMMP, since the label was established, dolphin deaths from tuna fishing have declined 98 percent. Currently, only Mexican, Venezuelan, and Colombian tuna vessels are still chasing and netting dolphins in order to catch tuna.

Mexico has objected to this labeling for years, claiming these restrictions to protect dolphins — which until recently only applied to tuna fishing in the ETPO region — discriminate against the Mexican tuna industry. In 2008 it took its complaint to the WTO. Following years of back and forth arguments, in 2014, the US National Marine Fisheries Service extended the restrictions to tuna fisheries from all parts of the world.

It’s possible, as some reports indicate, that the number of dolphins being impacted by Mexican tuna fleets has dropped in the intervening years. According to a 2013 NPR report, Mexican officials claim fishermen are using netting techniques that allow dolphins to escape, and all boats on a tuna fleet have independent observers onboard to ensure that the tuna are caught without harming dolphins.

But as a recent report by The Center for Investigative Reporting found, independent observers often face harassment, physical abuse and threats to their lives from the fishing crew while trying to do their jobs. Which means that it’s also very possible that observers don’t always manage to do their job adequately. (The report found that at least nine observers on international fishing vessels have died on the job since 2007.)

The Mexican tuna industry of trying to “hide behind rulings by trade bureaucrats,” IMMP’s Dave Phillips said, “but consumers are smarter than that and won’t buy their tuna stained by the blood of dead dolphins.”

For more information on Dolphin Safe tuna go here.

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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