World Trade Organization Panel Determines That U.S. Restrictions on Tuna Imports from Mexico Violate FairTrade Rules

By Navarro, Carlos | SourceMex Economic News & Analysis on Mexico, September 21, 2011 | Go to article overview
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World Trade Organization Panel Determines That U.S. Restrictions on Tuna Imports from Mexico Violate FairTrade Rules


Navarro, Carlos, SourceMex Economic News & Analysis on Mexico


In what appears to be a victory for Mexico in a 20-year trade dispute with the US regarding tuna, a World Trade Organization (WTO) panel has ruled that the practices of Mexican tuna fishing fleets do not endanger dolphins and that the US should allow them to export their product north of the border without having to adhere to the conditions imposed through the US "dolphin-safe" label.

The ruling brings Mexico closer to exporting yellowfin tuna to the US without restrictions, although the matter is not settled because the US has announced plans to file an appeal, which the WTO could take several months to consider.

The dispute between Mexico and the US stems from disagreements about adequate tuna-protection measures. Mexico contends that its tuna fleets follow environmentally sustainable practices that protect dolphins and are compatible with international standards.

The US government counters that the protections that Mexico has implemented are not sufficient and because of this has refused to apply the "dolphin-safe" label to Mexican imports since 1991 SourceMex, Feb. 20, 1991.

Mexico, which views the US labeling requirements as a nontariff barrier, brought the dispute to the WTO in March 2009, requesting the creation of a special panel to look into the matter SourceMex, Aug. 16, 2000. Mexico and the US attempted to negotiate a solution outside the WTO SourceMex, Feb. 10, 2010, but the effort failed.

The panel deliberated for more than two years and finally reached a decision favorable to Mexico in July of this year, but the official announcement did not come until mid-September. The panel concluded the labels authorized by the US Commerce Department "are more trade-restrictive than necessary to achieve a legitimate objective" of letting consumers know whether dolphins were accidentally harmed in tuna fishing.

Definition of dolphin-safe tuna at center of dispute

The US labeling criteria are guided by standards created by the California-based environmental organization Earth Island Institute (SourceMex, April 26, 2000 and Aug. 15, 2001. On its Web site, the organization offers the following guidelines it proposed for tuna to be "dolphin safe."

No intentional chasing, netting, or encirclement of dolphins during an entire tuna fishing trip;

No use of drift gill nets to catch tuna;

No accidental killing or serious injury to any dolphins during net sets;

No mixing of dolphin-safe and dolphin-deadly tuna in individual boat wells (for accidental kill of dolphins), or in processing or storage facilities; and

Each trip in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP) by vessels 400 gross tons and above must have an independent observer on board attesting to the compliance with the above stipulations.

"Our standards prevent harm to dolphins and are adhered to by more than 90% of the world's tuna companies," said the organization.

But critics argue that these standards are overly restrictive. They point out that Mexico has committed to protecting dolphins by signing on to the Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program (AIDPC), which offers an alternative labeling known as "Dolphin Safe AIDPC." The labeling certifies that the tuna catches result in almost no dolphin deaths.

Earth Island Institute disputes this assessment, pointing out that a fishing method employed by many tuna fleets in Mexico do result in dolphin deaths. The environmental organization singled out the Dolores brand of Mexican tuna, processed by Grupo Pinsa (Pescadores Industrializados SA). "Dolores tuna is caught by chasing and netting dolphins, in order to catch the tuna which swim beneath," said Earth Island Institute. "More than 7 million dolphins have died due to tuna fishing using this method."

Under the fishing methods employed in some parts of the world, including Mexico, fleets often find tuna by tracking a certain species of dolphin with the use of speedboats and helicopters.

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