World Trade Organization Reverses Course, Rules in Favor of U.S. Tuna Restrictions

By Navarro, Carlos | SourceMex Economic News & Analysis on Mexico, November 8, 2017 | Go to article overview

World Trade Organization Reverses Course, Rules in Favor of U.S. Tuna Restrictions


Navarro, Carlos, SourceMex Economic News & Analysis on Mexico


The World Trade Organization (WTO) in late October came out in support of the US position that it does not discriminate against the Mexican fishing industry with its strict requirements on the sustainable catch of tuna in the Pacific Ocean.

The WTO ruling in effect upholds the right of the US to require that Mexico meet the standards of the "dolphin safe" label in its tuna exports to the US. The label was first conceived in 1990, when environmental organizations and tuna companies agreed to a definition of "dolphin safe" for tuna caught without setting nets on or near dolphins. In 1997, the standards were expanded to include the requirement that no dolphins be killed or seriously injured during the tuna catch.

The ruling overrides a decision handed down by the WTO in April that gave Mexico the right to impose sanctions on US products worth about US $163.23 million a year in compensation for loses due to US restrictions on imports of Mexican tuna. The amount was only about one-third of the US$472.3 million that Mexico had requested (SourceMex, May 3, 2017).

The new ruling overrides the April decision and all other decisions handed down since the US and Mexico first became embroiled in the dispute over the "dolphin safe" label in the 1990s.

The controversy first arose when a US federal judge, at the behest of Earth Island Institute and other environmental groups, determined that Mexican fishing boats were surpassing the limits of incidental deaths of dolphins during the tuna catch (SourceMex, Nov. 21, 1990, and Feb. 20, 1991).

The US court rulings and restrictions prompted Mexico and the US to hold several rounds of negotiations in an effort to find a solution to the dispute (SourceMex, Aug. 14, 1996, Aug. 6, 1997, April 26, 2000). However, Mexico's insistence on continuing its fishing practices has remained an obstacle for the two countries to reach a definitive compromise. Mexico has refused to comply with the requirement that the tuna fishing vessels not encircle any dolphins with nets. In order to catch large schools of yellowfin tuna, fishing fleets employ speedboats to encircle dolphin pods, herding the sea mammals until they are exhausted. Larger fishing boats then move in with mile-long purse seine nets to surround the exhausted dolphins and the tuna that swim beneath.

To reinforce the "dolphin safe" label, the US House of Representatives approved legislation in 1992 that banned the importation of tuna caught via the dolphin encircling method (SourceMex, Oct. 7, 1992, and Nov. 4, 1992).

"Many dolphins die from injuries, physiological stress, and drowning," said Earth Island Journal. "Meanwhile, baby dolphins, who are often left behind during the chase, starve or are eaten by predators. The same pod of dolphins can be chased and netted again and again. More than 7 million dolphins have died after being trapped in nets since this fishing method was introduced in 1957."

According to the environmental organization Earth Island Institute, Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela are three countries in the Americas that continue to employ the encircling process to catch tuna. Other tuna-producing countries have agreed to comply with the "dolphin safe" guidelines.

"Since the US established 'dolphin safe' standards nearly three decades ago, more than 95% of the world's tuna industry has pledged to stop using such fishing methods and follow the labeling requirements," said the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), an environmental organization that supports dolphin protections.

IMMP, which maintains fishing monitors around the world to see that tuna companies are complying with these standards, reports that dolphin deaths from tuna fishing have declined 98% since the "dolphin safe" label was established.

Mexico insists that the practices of its fishing vessels are sustainable, and that the US guidelines impose discriminatory restrictions on imports of Mexican tuna, which is prevented from entering the lucrative US canned tuna market. …

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