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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

Mark J. Palmer
Mark J. Palmer is Associate Director of the International Marine Mammal Project.

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Dear Prodolphin,

  Yes, most of the world’s canned tuna fisheries now either set nets on
FADs or set nets on schools of tuna.  According to scientific reports, the
bycatch of FADs is not particularly high compared to other fisheries, and
certainly FADs catch far fewer marine mammals than do the Mexican tuna
industry which deliberately chases, nets, and drowns thousands of dolphins

  You are mistaken that there is no checking of tunaboats in the
Philippines or Thailand.  Both Earth Island and the Western & Central
Pacific Tuna Commission use onboard observers.  Earth Island has called for
more coverage, too, as has our sister-organization Friends of the Sea.

  Our funding comes from a variety of sources, including foundations,
major donors, and direct mail/e-mail appeals.  You can get a copy of our
annual financial reports and filings with the government from our main

  As for Mexico’s label, we know of no companies outside of Mexico,
Colombia and Venezuela who bother to use the label issues by the IATTC.  In
fact, 90% of the world’s tuna companies use a Dolphin Safe label and adhere
to international standards for Dolphin Safe tuna.  To claim Mexico’s label
is “sustainable” is laughable—the species of tuna taken by Mexican tuna
companies—mainly yellowfin tuna and big eye tuna—are overexploited in
the Eastern Tropical Pacific.

By Mark Palmer on Tue, December 06, 2011 at 11:44 am

I appreaciate your reply however I disagree with your views.
I have gone through the WTO report and it clearly states that the US tuna fleet (and the fleets from any other countries) catch tuna with FAD’s (and other methods, which are also dangerous), FAD’s endanger the marine life as shown in the video, however such tuna caught with FAD’s still get the US dolphin safe label.
The Phillipines and Thailand source the US tuna market, these countries obtain the US dolphin safe label by only having the captain of the boat to state that they didnt kill dolphins! (odd isnt it?)
I will really like to know who funds Earth Island?
I have also read that the International label that is used by Mexico is being widely recognized as a success as it is totally sustainable.

By Prodolphin on Mon, December 05, 2011 at 12:41 pm

Dear Realenvironmentalprotection:

Thank you for your postings.  Your information, however, is mistaken.  Mexico kills dolphins, large numbers of them, and also harasses and chases dolphins, which the US National Marine Fisheries Service scientists have shown kills baby dolphins that cannot keep up with their mothers.  As a result, the populations of dolphins in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean continues to be suppressed at very low levels, instead of recovering to levels of original population size.

The Greenpeace video is indeed shocking, but the fishing practices shown there are violations of our Dolphin Safe policy, too.  We are investigating with Greenpeace.

We do not support the AIDCP, as this agreement allows the killing of thousands of dolphins annually and does little to protect other marine life or tuna stocks.  In fact, we fear tuna stocks in the ETP are in danger.

We have told Mexican tuna companies that we would welcome their tuna imported to the US, if they were to adopt our Dolphin Safe polices.  These companies have so far refused.

Thanks for your consideration.

By Mark Palmer on Wed, November 30, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Dolphin Safe label means nothing else than blocking Mexican tuna which actually does protect dolphins; U.S dolphin safe label allows for tuna from other parts of the world to use the label EVEN IF THEY KILL DOLPHINS. Ask and find out WHO HAS INTERESTS IN EARTH ISLAND BUSINESS.
Is this really an environmental policy or just an attempt to protect a multibillion dollar U.S. industry???

By Prodolphin on Wed, November 23, 2011 at 3:56 pm

look at this video to have real and accurate information, this is how the U.S. fleet catches tuna and they still get the dolphin safe label

By realenvironmentalprotection on Wed, November 23, 2011 at 3:55 pm

The information on this website is unreliable. MExican tuna fleet catches tuna under the rules of the AIDCP, which ensures a sustainable catch.

By realenvironmentalprotection on Wed, November 23, 2011 at 3:53 pm

sarebbe ora di andare oltre i profitti ,non se ne puo piu di queste crudelta ,tutto torna indietro prima o poi

By antonina buccato on Mon, October 03, 2011 at 12:29 pm

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