Mexico Tries to Crush “Dolphin Safe” Tuna Label via WTO

by Mark J. Palmer

The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), Earth Island Institute (EII) and a coalition of supportive groups have been crying foul since the government of Mexico demanded late in October that the World Trade Organization (WTO) overturn US law and federal legal decisions that protect dolphins.

In the tropical Pacific Ocean off Latin America, dolphins swim with schools of yellowfin tuna. Though the reason for the close association is still unexplained, fishermen learned early on that wherever the dolphins swim, the commercially-hunted tuna follow beneath. 

AWI and EII have successfully fought for years to reduce the drowning of dolphins in tuna nets, which have caused the deaths of more than seven million dolphins since the introduction of purse seine tuna fishing in the late 1950s. One hundred thousand dolphins were being killed annually in the fishery before our boycott and lawsuits led to the adoption of the “Dolphin Safe” tuna label in 1990. Congress then established standards for use of the label that require no dolphins be chased or netted.

But Mexico’s tuna fleet, rejecting these restraints, kills more dolphins than any other tuna fleet in the world. Despite Mexico’s efforts to weaken US standards, with support from both the Clinton and Bush administrations, AWI, EII and our coalition have blocked these efforts in Congress and federal courts.

Since Mexico’s latest challenge to the label in the fall, it has up to a year to request a full trade dispute panel from the WTO. Unfortunately, these panels are made up of people who have no knowledge of dolphins or environmental laws—they are essentially trade bureaucrats. Yet the panel could rule that the US law is a barrier to free trade and must be repealed. This is often the case with the WTO, which has time after time ruled against the environment in the name of so-called free trade. If the US refuses to adhere to its policies, the WTO can impose expensive trade sanctions against the nation. 

Mexico claims the “Dolphin Safe” label is a trade barrier, when in fact, Mexico can legally export dolphin-deadly tuna to the United States. Major US tuna companies and consumers, however, refuse to buy tuna that is not truly dolphin safe; Mexico therefore wants to change US standards to allow their tuna—stained by the blood of thousands of dolphins—to be falsely labeled “Dolphin Safe.”

AWI and EII are seeking to intervene in the WTO dispute on behalf of dolphins. Our groups have already submitted research to government lawyers with the US Trade Representative’s office, proving that Mexican tuna fishing methods kill dolphins.

For now, American consumers can buy “Dolphin Safe” tuna knowing that dolphins are not chased or netted during fishing operations. But the WTO challenge by Mexico still looms as the most serious threat thus far to the otherwise successful “Dolphin Safe” label. 

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