US Tuna Ban May Snag Trade Talks with Mexico Mexico Says US Environmental Rules Violate Principle of Open Markets

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MEXICAN officials are reacting angrily to an Oct. 10 United States embargo on tuna.

Not only is it souring trade relations with Mexico, but a secondary ban to go into effect in December may also rankle Japan and European nations as well.

The embargo, required by the US Marine Mammal Protection Act, revised in 1988, forbids the sale of tuna in the US if a certain number of dolphins are killed in the fishing process.

What bothers Mexican officials is that the US, by virtue of its market size, can single-handedly force a poor nation to comply with costly ecological standards set by the US Congress.

"It seems totally unjust when the US Congress makes laws which apply to third countries and the use of their own resources. How would you feel if Mexico made law for the US?" asks Clara Jusidman, Mexico's undersecretary of fishery development. "It seems contrary to the spirit of open markets the US is promoting."

International ecological standards should be set in international forums, Ms. Jusidman argues.

For example, Mexico has been working on a plan since the beginning of the year for the protection of all species captured incidentally during fishing. It will push its plan on Nov. 19 at the Latin American Organization for the Development of Fisheries in Bolivia.

Jusidman points out that the dolphins being killed are not considered "endangered" species. But the US Marine Mammal Protection Act does provide protection to species deemed depleted below "optimal" levels.

She says that Mexico has reduced its dolphin kill rate by 70 percent over the last four years. "If we're really talking about protecting dolphins, we need more evidence that the Mexican fleet is causing serious damage," says Jusidman.

The perception here is that this embargo is not ecological but economic. Based on the Law of the Sea Treaty, in 1980 Mexico declared its 200-mile economic zone off limits to foreign fleets. It has since built up the second-largest and most-modern tuna fleet in the world. It's become a valued source of foreign currency and jobs for some 3,000 families.

Now that Mexico's fleet is big enough to take market share from the US industry, claim officials, protectionist barriers go up.

Actually, even without the US law, Mexico may find itself selling to a shrinking US market. In April, the three largest US tuna canners - with some 80 percent market share - Starkist, Chicken of the Sea, and Bumblebee - declared they would only sell "Dolphin Safe" tuna.

But it is not just losing the US market that hurts. (Sales to the US comprise 3 percent now, but were about 15 percent in years past). The major blow will come early next month, when Mexico may lose most of its tuna export markets. Sixty days after the initial embargo, US law requires a secondary ban on countries buying Mexican tuna and reexporting it to the US. …