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Mexico’s Ten-Year WTO Effort to Overturn the Dolphin Safe Tuna Label Ends in Total Defeat

| Mark J. Palmer, Associate Director, International Marine Mammal Project
Topics: Dolphin Safe Tuna, Dolphins, Tuna Industry

Earth Island Calls On Mexican Tuna Industry to “Get Out of the Dolphin-Killing Business”

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has issued a final ruling denying the government of Mexico’s efforts to weaken the US Dolphin Safe tuna label.  The litigation has been ongoing for ten years, but on Friday, Dec. 14th, 2018, the WTO Appellate Panel brought the case to an end by declaring that the United States’ Dolphin Safe label does not “discriminate” against the Mexican tuna industry and is fully consistent with WTO rules.

Mexico has the largest tuna fleet in the world that continues to target, chase, net, harass, and kill thousands of dolphins annually.  Tuna congregate underneath the dolphins, and the Mexican large purse seiners deliberately set nets on pods of dolphins to catch the tuna beneath.

By contrast, the US Dolphin Safe label, established originally by the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) of Earth Island Institute in 1990 and codified into law by the US Congress, prohibits use of the label for any tuna that was caught by intentional chase and capture of dolphins in tuna nets or for any tuna caught in sets in which dolphins are injured or killed.  

The government of Mexico, representing a handful of tuna millionaires, has repeatedly tried to overturn the Dolphin Safe label, finally going to the World Trade Organization ten years ago in October 2008, to urge the trade body to block the US use of the label for canned tuna or award the label to the Mexican tuna industry.

David Phillips, Executive Director of Earth Island Institute and IMMP, stated, in relation to the victory for the Dolphin Safe tuna label at the World Trade Organization:

“At long last, the World Trade Organization has upheld the legality and scientific validity of the Dolphin Safe tuna label. Mexico’s decade-long effort overturn the label at the WTO has been demolished by today’s WTO Appellate Panel decision.”

Phillips continued: “This ruling should make clear that Mexico’s intentional chasing and netting of dolphins is illegitimate and must end. The vast majority of world’s tuna industry has already stopped the chasing, netting, harassment, and killing of dolphins in tuna nets.  It’s time for Mexico to get out of the dolphin-killing business.”

More than 90% of the world tuna industry follows the Earth Island Dolphin Safe label standards of no encirclement of any dolphins during tuna fishing operations.  IMMP maintains monitors around the world to check on tuna supplies and verify that the tuna is caught by Dolphin Safe methods.

Earth Island Institute praised US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer and the lawyers of his office for their successful defense of the Dolphin Safe tuna label, found on most cans of tuna in US supermarkets.  Phillips called their actions “expert and unwavering”.  

The National Marine Fisheries Service also worked diligently to put in place fishing regulations for uniform reporting and verifying Dolphin Safe standards without weakening the legal standards.

Tuna fishing, processing, and retail companies around the world deserve thanks for standing firm in support of Dolphin Safe fishing practices.  Many of these companies have worked closely with Earth Island since 1990 when Earth Island pioneered the development of the Dolphin Safe program. 

Finally, our thanks go to our many IMMP supporters who have kept the pressure to maintain the strong and verifiable Dolphin Safe standards to ensure that canned tuna is caught in ways that are safe for dolphins.


Photo by Michael Nolan.


While the victory over the government of Mexico is a tremendous boost to the Dolphin Safe program, we still have to ensure that tuna companies continue their compliance.  Please consider a donation to our work to prevent tens of thousands of dolphins from drowning in tuna nets!