US Appeals WTO Ruling in Favor of Dolphin-Killing Tuna Fishermen

The World Trade Organization (WTO) issued its latest ruling in April in a decades-long dispute between Mexico and the United States over “Dolphin Safe” labeling of tuna caught in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP). The ruling, as other WTO decisions before it, was a victory for Mexico’s multibillion-dollar tuna fishing industry, and a blow to dolphin conservation. The United States has appealed.

On a scale unique to the ETP region, yellowfin tuna regularly swim in groups with dolphins. Exploiting this relationship, fishermen targeted dolphins to catch tuna, injuring or killing as many as 7 million dolphins since the 1950s. The US government responded by adopting “Dolphin Safe” legislation that today requires companies exporting processed (canned) tuna into the United States to provide a statement from captains and independent observers confirming that no dolphins were netted, killed or seriously injured during the fishing operation for that tuna. However, some fishermen, including those from Mexico, continued to target dolphins. In 2008, Mexico objected to the WTO that the United States’ “Dolphin Safe” labeling scheme singled out its tuna fishing industry, preventing its tuna products from accessing the valuable US market.

Although the WTO agreed that setting nets on dolphins is a harmful fishing method, the panel finally found in Mexico’s favor in 2012, ruling that the US label focuses too narrowly on fishing methods in the ETP. The United States responded by expanding reporting and verification procedures to other oceans, but it continued to exclude Mexican canned tuna labeled “Dolphin Safe,” pointing to the ongoing use of nets that kill dolphins and arguing that US consumers have the right to know that the fishing methods used to catch their tuna do not harm dolphins. Mexico then asked the WTO to establish a special panel to review the United States’ compliance with the 2012 ruling.

The WTO compliance panel, established in 2014, finally made its ruling in April 2015. While it decided that the United States was justified in treating tuna caught by certain fishing methods differently as a conservation measure, it agreed with Mexico that the United States’ “Dolphin Safe” labeling scheme is discriminatory against Mexican tuna and therefore violated the WTO’s trade agreements.

Conservation and animal protection groups urged the United States to appeal, which it did on June 5. In its notice of appeal, the United States asserts that the WTO’s decision was based on an erroneous legal interpretation. As this issue went to press, no further details of the appeal were available, but we will provide an update in a future edition of the AWI Quarterly.