WTO Rules Against Dolphins But Mexican Dolphin-Deadly Tuna May Still Find No Markets
For reasons still unknown, yellowfin tuna and dolphins regularly travel together in the waters of the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP). What is known, however, is how to exploit this relationship in order to catch huge amounts of tuna, leaving thousands of dead dolphins in the wake.
Thanks to the Dolphin Safe labeling program, initiated by the Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project, the tuna fishing industry was brought to task for harassing, chasing and encircling dolphins in nets, resulting in a 99% reduction in dolphin mortalities.
Currently, over 90% of the world’s tuna fishing industry adheres to the non-encirclement Dolphin Safe policy. The major outlier is Mexico – which also happens to be the country with the most coastline along the ETP. Because it is easier and cheaper for huge tuna purse-seiners there to “set nets” on dolphins, the Mexican tuna industry refuses to adopt the Dolphin Safe principles and continues to chase and net dolphins year round, resulting in the injury, killing, and dangerous harassment of many thousands of dolphins every year. Dolphin Safe means no chasing and setting of nets or mortality of dolphins.
The Mexican government and tuna industry have challenged the Dolphin Safe label over the last 20 years, claiming to have been “frozen out” of US canned tuna markets. On November 20, 2014, the World Trade Organization (WTO) Appellate Panel ruled to support Mexico’s complaints, finding that the label discriminated against the Mexican tuna industry and called it a “technical barrier to trade”.
However, the WTO failed to take biological or ethical considerations into account, instead focusing on the trade issue alone. “Repeatedly, the WTO has insisted that Mexico is discriminated against by the US Dolphin Safe label, despite their tuna being stained by the blood of dolphins,” says David Phillips, Director of the International Marine Mammal Project, pointing out that the decision essentially rewards Mexico’s choice to kill dolphins in the name of free trade. “It is high time for Mexico to quit this environmentally destructive fishing practice, rather than trying to force its dolphin deadly tuna onto US supermarket shelves by raising issues about trade barriers.”
The WTO ruling means that the Unites States could now face trade sanctions for maintaining the label. However, Earth Island Institute and the federal US Office of the Trade Representative remain of the view that the failure of Mexican tuna caught by netting dolphins to get to market in the US is not because of any trade barrier, but simply because companies, retailers, and consumers have no interest in purchasing their products. Tim Reif, general counsel at the U.S. Office of the Trade Representative, also indicated that the new WTO ruling does not require that the United States reduce the protection of dolphins or lower its labeling requirements, which would end up crippling the Dolphin Safe tuna label. Mr. Reif also said that the WTO Appellate Body had recognized the United States had already gone some way towards complying with Mexico's original concerns that the documentation and observation required of the Mexican fishing industry was higher than that of tuna fisheries in other areas of the world.
If the Mexican tuna industry has its way, it will be able to sell dolphin-deadly tuna to American consumers, in cans adorned with the Dolphin Safe label. This might sound like free trade, but it would both undermine truth in labeling and devastate depleted dolphin populations..
Ultimately, when trade trumps all other considerations, many species end up footing the bill.