US strengthens dolphin-free tuna labeling

The final rule "helps ensure that American consumers continue to receive accurate information regarding whether the tuna in a product labeled dolphin-safe was caught in a manner that caused harm to dolphins," Froman said. 

"These changes demonstrate that the United States can provide consumer information, protect dolphins and avoid discrimination between WTO members consistent with WTO rules.”

The rule takes effect on Saturday. 

Earlier this week, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the author of the 1990 law, praised the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) final rule to comply with last year's WTO ruling that found that the U.S. policy created a potential trade barrier for Mexico.

"Numerous times over the last 20 years the dolphin-safe label has been in great jeopardy, and this new rule will help ensure that the label that customers have come to trust and rely on is protected," she said. 

Boxer argued that by applying the same certification requirements internationally and to all gear types, the rule addresses Mexico’s challenge without weakening the label’s intentions.

The final rule also includes a period of education and outreach through Jan. 1, 2014, to provide the fishing industry with additional guidance on enforcement.

In June 2012, the WTO found that the dolphin-safe labeling requirements were not “even-handed” in the treatment of tuna harvested in different oceans.

Mexico continued to argue this week that the rules are unfair to their fishermen and said it would, once again, take its case to the WTO arguing that the United States has not met its international obligations.

The Mexican Agricultural Ministry said the nation could impose trade sanctions against the U.S. if there is a violation.

Public Citizen said it backed NOAA's "creative response" to the issue, saying that Mexico had sought a rollback of the labeling program.

"Public Citizen applauds NOAA’s approach, which breaks with years of the U.S. government weakening consumer and environmental policies attacked at the WTO,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “We are now left to wait and wonder if the WTO will continue its anti-environmental, anti-consumer rights legacy or finally side with Flipper and consumers’ right to make informed decisions about the food we purchase.”

The Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) is the only region where dolphins are known to congregate above schools of tuna, so the dolphin-safe criteria for that region are set by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), an international body that includes Mexico, and apply to all fishers operating there, Public Citizen said. 

If U.S. or Mexican fishers choose to use the IATTC dolphin-safe methods, their tuna qualifies for U.S. labeling. 

Tuna not meeting the standard can be sold in the U.S. without the label. 

“The troubling trend of repeated successful WTO attacks against America’s dolphin protection and consumer information policies shows how the terms of our current ‘trade’ agreements can undermine core environmental and consumer safeguards,” Wallach said. “As the Obama administration now seeks to expand the same sort of rules in new Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Pacific pacts it is negotiating, the public is taking note.”