“Dolphin-safe” labelled tuna dispute

The WTO has sided with Mexico in the long-running US-Mexico tuna fish dispute, multiple sources have now confirmed. While the details of the report are not yet known, the ruling likely means the US may soon be required to change its policy on “dolphin-safe” labelling, thereby lifting an effective twenty year ban on Mexican yellow-fin tuna.

The dispute has been brewing since the early 1990s, when the US placed an embargo on Mexican tuna fish imports. At the centre of the issue were the purse sein nets used by Mexican fishermen, which the US argues could accidentally trap and kill Pacific Ocean dolphins.

In 1991, Mexico won a case against the embargo under the old General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) dispute settlement procedure. The panel reporting to the GATT did not, however, rule against a US Department of Commerce policy to place dolphin-safe labelling on tuna products. Although Mexico can legally export tuna to the US, most American companies are unwilling to buy tuna that cannot bear the dolphin-safe logo on labels.

Mexico requested consultations with the US over the labelling issue in October 2008, claiming that the requirements break non-discrimination principles under the WTO’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (see Bridges Trade BioRes, 31 October 2008).

Mexico has argued that its fishing practices meet international standards for dolphin protection. The country meets regulations under the Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program (AIDCP), a multilateral agreement that was signed by both Mexico and the US in 1999. Under the agreement, Mexico, like the US, requires onboard inspections of tuna vessels during fishing trips to enforce AIDCP standards (see Bridges Trade BioRes Review, Spring 2010).

Last Wednesday, Nkenge Harmon, spokesperson for the Office of the US Trade Representative, told the Wall Street Journal that “the United States will continue to vigorously pursue the objectives of the dolphin-safe labelling provisions,” noting that the labelling rules protect dolphins and provide transparency to consumers.

Legal details about the WTO decision have not yet been released to the public, and the Dispute Settlement Panel’s report has been labelled strictly confidential. However, Bruno Ferrari, Mexico’s Secretary of the Economy, to Mexican press that the dispute is close to being resolved.

The WTO report is expected to be released at the end of September. After the report is circulated amongst WTO members, the US and Mexico each have 60 days to make final appeals.

Source: ICTSD

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