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WTO Rules US Dolphin Safe Tuna Label ‘Unfair’ to Mexico

Decision a Big Blow to Dolphin Protection, Say Environmentalists

The World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled yesterday that United States’ “Dolphin Safe" tuna-labeling regulations unfairly discriminates against Mexico and probably needs to be modified to make an exception for Mexican fishermen, or dropped. It’s not totally clear what the economic implications of the ruling are, but this is definitely a big setback in efforts to protect marine mammals.

The new ruling is a reversal of a September 2011 one on the same case where WTO arbitrators had decided that the labeling, while “more trade restrictive than necessary,” wasn’t actually discriminatory. Both the US and Mexico had appealed the decision in January, resulting in yesterday’s decision by the WTO appellate panel.  Trade analysts say it’s possible that if the US fails to comply it could mean sanctions against American products in the global market.

The decision was condemned by Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project, which established the Dolphin Safe Tuna labeling program and monitors tuna companies around the world for compliance. “The WTO decision … is an outrageous attack that would ensure thousands of dolphins horrible deaths in tuna nets while lying to consumers about the Dolphin Safe status of such tuna,” said IMMP director David Phillips. “Earth Island will urge the Obama Administration and the US Congress to refuse to weaken the standards for Dolphin Safe tuna despite this noxious WTO decision,” he said.

The ruling is the latest development in a long-standing trade dispute between the US and Mexico that dates back to the establishment of the Dolphin Safe tuna label in 1990.

Here’s why the label is important: 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. 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.

Photo by Mark Palmer/Earth Island InstituteThe US Dolphin Safe label can only be used for tuna that is not caught by chasing and netting dolphins.

In 1990, after years of campaigning by IMMP, the Dolphin Safe tuna label was established in the US.  The label can only be used for tuna that is not caught by chasing and netting dolphins. Nor can it be used if dolphins are killed or seriously injured during a tuna fishing expedition. Dolphin deaths from tuna fishing have declined 98 percent since the label was established, says IMMP, with virtually only Mexican, Venezuelan, and Colombian tuna vessels still chasing and netting dolphins.

Mexico has objected to this labeling for years, claiming these restrictions to protect dolphins discriminate against the Mexican tuna industry. In 2008 it took its complaint to the WTO. However all other nations involved in tuna fishing in the ETPO region, except Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia, follow the US standards for Dolphin Safe tuna. “There is no reason why Mexico should not also comply with these standards,” said IMMP associate director Mark Palmer.

Palmer also pointed out that despite the US label being voluntary, the WTO dispute panel claimed the label was “mandatory” and therefore open for WTO review and restrictions.  “In fact, Mexico can sell tuna in the US with a Dolphin Safe label if they follow the same standards as US tuna fishermen and everyone else,” he said. "I suspect the issue is going to boil down to whether we allow Mexcio to kill dolphins and then say their tuna is dolphin safe," Palmer said.

Meanwhile, Nkenge Harmon, a spokesperson for US Trade Representative Ron Kirk told reporters that the US remained “committed to ensuring that consumers receive accurate information concerning whether the tuna in a product labeled 'dolphin safe' was caught in a manner that caused harm to dolphins.”

Click here for further information on Earth Island’s Dolphin Safe tuna label and what you can do as a consumer to save 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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We need a petition- maybe route it thru Care-2 (where I first saw the article about this) aimed at the WTO regulators. The petition should be published as well via world-wide Conservation groups… ocean-sustainability organizations, and consumer protection and advocacy groups. I think you need to be sure to pay special attention to such groups in Mexico, Venezuela and Columbia since this (bogus) ruling evidently was made on (their) behalf. There should also be a way to route signatures/ petitions thru the various WTO member/ representatives and the principle leaders in all WTO signatory countries.

By bjw-chxMI on Sat, May 19, 2012 at 1:13 pm

The WTO presented facts that EII “dolphin safe” is defrauding American consumers. Thousands of dolphins are being killed and injured in tuna fisheries that supply the US market and the tuna is allowed to be labeled dolphin safe. Despite the claims of EII, there is absolutely NO verification of claims to the contrary. EII promotes FAD fishing which is killing our worlds oceans because of bycatch of millions of endangered sea turtles, sharks, billfish and juvenile tunas.  have worked on this issue for Mexico for 20 years, yes….but these are the facts.  Dolphin safe is a lie!!!!

By Mark Robertson on Sat, May 19, 2012 at 5:14 am

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