US, Mexico clash over tuna can labels

New regulations for canned tuna labels are ratcheting up a bitter, years old dispute between the United States and Mexico, with both sides accusing the other of killing large numbers of dolphins in the Pacific.

More stringent requirements kicked in Saturday for companies that want to sell their tuna as “dolphin safe” in the United States. The revision to the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act (DPCIA) expands labeling rules for tuna products that are either exported from or sold in the United States.

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The move is meant to bring the United States into compliance with international standards following a 2012 World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling that previous U.S. labeling policy discriminated against the Mexican tuna industry.

But the Mexican government blasted the new rules, saying they don’t remedy the violation. The country, one of the United States’ top trading partners, is threatening to impose damaging retaliatory tariffs.

“Mexico will challenge before the WTO that the United States has failed to comply with its WTO obligations,” the Mexican government said in a written statement it issued in response to the new regulations. “Once the U.S. violation is confirmed by the WTO, Mexico will be in a position to impose trade sanctions against the United States.”

While they have not detailed the tariffs, Mexican officials said they would “consider suspending trade benefits across a variety of sectors.”

The dispute centers on differing fishing methods employed by the two nations’ tuna industries. The Mexican “chase and encircle” practice involves the tracking of dolphins, which often swim above large schools of yellow fin tuna.

The fish are then corralled by giant nets designed to allow the dolphins, which swim closer to the surface of the ocean, to “spill” out the top and swim free.

Critics of the method argue that the Mexican industry often uses explosives to slow down the schools and speedboats to catch them, endangering the dolphins.

“It results in significant dolphin mortality,” said Dave Phillips, executive director of the environmentalist group Earth Island Institute. “You can’t in good conscience call that dolphin-safe.”

Under the 1990 DPCIA, tuna harvested in the eastern tropical Pacific via chase and encircle practices cannot be labeled dolphin-safe in the United States.

Since then, the Mexican tuna industry has made great strides in curbing the danger and has cut dolphin deaths by 99 percent, said Mark Robertson, a spokesman for the Campaign for Eco-Safe Tuna, which represents Mexico’s tuna industry.

In 2009, the Mexican government challenged U.S. labeling regulations before the WTO and prevailed last year, when the body found that the regulations create a trade barrier for the Mexican tuna industry.

The United States issued the new rule last week, days ahead of a July 13 WTO-imposed deadline. The rule effectively expands the requirements that tuna producers wishing to obtain the dolphin-safe label verify that chase and encircle methods were not employed regardless of where the fish were harvested.

By broadening the regulations beyond the eastern tropical Pacific to areas where the U.S. tuna industry and other interests primarily operate, the new rule puts all sides on even footing without weakening the restrictions, said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who penned the original law.

“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,” Boxer said in praise of the new rule.

But the Mexican government contends that the methods used should not be a factor, contending that U.S. methods that are deadly to dolphins. Among the techniques employed by the American industry is the use of fish aggregating devices or “FADs.”

The process involves the use of an artificial float or buoy tethered to the ocean’s floor. Small fish tend to congregate beneath its shade, attracting larger fish, including tuna, which are scooped out with large nets.

But the hauls pull in many other creatures, including sea turtles, other fish and seabirds, and many are killed in the process, the Mexican government and industry contend.

In the meantime, Mexican-caught tuna is effectively barred from the market because sellers will not accept any product that cannot be sold as dolphin-safe (fines for falsely labeling tuna as dolphin-safe can be up to $100,000 apiece).

The regulations have taken a major toll on the Mexican economy, Robertson said.

“Damage to the Mexican industry over the past 20 years is in the hundreds of millions [of dollars],” he said.

The Earth Institute’s Phillips scoffed at the suggestion. He maintained that the dolphin deaths are rare and said tuna sellers wouldn’t risk the stigma of selling products caught through the Mexican methods, even if it could be marketed with the label.

“The Mexicans are trying to pull a fast one,” he said.

The WTO could take months to review Mexico’s renewed challenge and determine whether the new regulations are consistent with international standards.