WTO sides with Mexico in 'dolphin-safe' tuna dispute

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has sided with Mexico in a trade dispute over regulations for canned tuna labels.

On Tuesday, WTO said stricter rules for companies that want to sell their tuna as “dolphin safe” discriminate against Mexican tuna products and fail to bring the U.S. into compliance with its obligations under the WTO agreement.

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The U.S. and Mexico have been arguing for years over the different fishing methods used by tuna industries in the two nations. Mexico fisheries use the “chase and encircle” practice that involves tracking dolphins since they generally 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.

The revisions to the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act, however, requires that all companies wanting to sell tuna in the U.S as “dolphin-safe” certify that no dolphins were seriously injured in the way in which the tuna was caught and no nets were intentionally set on dolphins while catching their tuna, effectively ruling out the “chase and encircle” fishing method. 

The amendments to the rules also changed tracking and verification requirements depending on the fishery where the tuna was caught. 

Tuna caught in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, where most of Mexico's fleet fish, could be labelled as dolphin safe only if both the captain and an independent observer certified that the tuna was caught without harming dolphins, but tuna caught in all other fisheries required only a captain certification, according to WTO’s findings.

In a statement, the Campaign for Eco-Safe Tuna, which represents Mexico’s tuna industry, said Mexico’s inability to carry the U.S. dolphin-safe label illegally denies them market access to the U.S.

“All other tuna in the U.S. marketplace not captured in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) can enter the U.S. market as dolphin safe with virtually no proof that is was captured without harm to dolphins,” the group said.

Critics of Mexico’s fishing methods, however, called WTO’s decision "illogical."

“They agree with the U.S. that the chasing, netting and killing of dolphins is bad practice, but then they turn around and say Mexico is still discriminated against by U.S. policies," said Mark Palmer, associate director of the International Marine Mammal Project at Earth Island Institute. “I think it’s a biased decision against dolphins in favor of trade.”

Palmer said the WTO ruling likely won’t change much, since Mexico is already in the marketplace.

“They can import tuna to the U.S,” he said. “They just can’t use the ‘dolphin-safe’ label. If they had the 'dolphin-safe' label we'd know it’s a phony label, the public would know it's a phony label."

In a statement, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said the U.S. is pleased the compliance panel re-affirmed that the U.S. is entitled to disqualify tuna product from being labeled as dolphin safe if it is produced by setting nets on dolphins. 

“However, the United States is disappointed that the compliance panel found that the aspects of the dolphin safe labeling requirements regarding observers and recordkeeping discriminate against Mexican tuna product exports,” the statement went on to say. “The United States is planning on appealing the report in the coming months.”