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In Win for Dolphins, WTO Reverses Decision on US Dolphin Safe Tuna Label

Environmental groups celebrate, call on Mexico to drop case against US

After several negative rulings against the United States for its strong standards for the Dolphin Safe tuna label, the World Trade Organization yesterday agreed that the US is in compliance with WTO Free Trade regulations. Environmental groups, including the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), are celebrating the ruling, calling it a big victory for dolphins.

photo of dolphins in mexicoPhoto by Charles Chandler The World Trade Organization has ruled that Dolphin Safe tuna-labeling standards in the US comply with free trade regulations.

“As the organization that established the popular Dolphin Safe label, we are very pleased with this decision,” said IMMP Associate Director Mark J. Palmer. “Governments and tuna industries such as Mexico should reconsider their actions of sanctioning the chasing, netting, and killing of thousands of dolphins and adopt the US standards of no setting of nets on dolphins to catch tuna,” he said.

Yesterday’s decision — 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 — reverses several prior WTO rulings, including one in April of this year, that said that Dolphin Safe tuna-labeling regulations unfairly discriminated against Mexico by restricting its access to US markets.

The US standards for use of the Dolphin Safe label require that the tuna fishing vessels not encircle any dolphins with nets.

Until recently, some of the strictest labeling restrictions only applied to tuna fishing 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, the United States, and several other countries in the region used to allow their tuna industry to deliberately target, chase, and surround the dolphins with nets in order to get to the tuna. 

Fishermen in this region use speedboats to herd dolphin pods, which are herded for miles until they are exhausted. Then they use massive, mile-long purse seine nets to surround the exhausted dolphins and the tuna that swim beneath. Many dolphins die from injuries, physiological stress, and drowning. Meanwhile, baby dolphins, who are often left behind during the chase, starve or are eaten by predators. The same pod of dolphins can be chased and netted again and again. More than 7 million dolphins have died after being trapped in nets since this fishing method was introduced in 1957.

Since the US established Dolphin Safe standards nearly three decades ago, more than 95 percent of the world’s tuna industry has pledged to stop using such fishing methods and follow the labeling requirements.  IMMP, which maintains fishing monitors around the world to see that tuna companies are complying with these standards, says that since the label was established, dolphin deaths from tuna fishing have declined 98 percent.

Currently, only a few fishing boats continue to chase and net dolphins in order to catch tuna, mostly from the countries of Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia.

In 2008, the government of Mexico filed a formal case against the United States at the World Trade Organization claiming the Dolphin Safe labeling restrictions discriminate against the Mexican tuna industry. The case has been dragging on ever since.

“Mexico claims falsely that they harm very few dolphins — in fact extensive scientific research by the US National Marine Fisheries Service proves they are quite wrong,” Palmer said.

A key part of yesterday’s successful outcome is a 2014 decision by the US Office of the Trade Representative and the US National Marine Fisheries Service to extend the Dolphin Safe labeling restrictions beyond the ETPO region, to tuna fisheries from all parts of the world, rather than water down the labeling standards.

“So instead of discriminating against Mexico, the case became about whether Mexico should get the special privilege of lying to consumers that their tuna, stained by the blood of dolphins, could somehow be falsely labeled ‘Dolphin Safe,’” Palmer explained. In its latest decision, the WTO panel agreed that the US had complied with the provisions of the WTO against trade discrimination.  And the US Dolphin Safe label remains intact and strong.

The Mexican government says it’s going to fight the latest ruling with an appeal, but Palmer thinks it’s about time the country dropped this 10-year-old case against the US and dolphins.

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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