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WTO Support for Dolphin Safe Label: Ten Years of IMMP’s Work Pays Off

| Mark J. Palmer
Topics: Dolphin Safe Tuna, Tuna Industry

In 2008, after a series of lawsuits in support of the US Dolphin Safe tuna label standards were won by the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) of Earth Island Institute, the government and tuna industry of Mexico brought the issue to the World Trade Organization (WTO).  They claimed that the Dolphin Safe standards “discriminated” against Mexico’s dolphin-killing tuna fishery.

On Thursday, October 26th, the WTO announced that the US had satisfied WTO regulations of international trade.  Mexico’s case has fallen apart.

For ten years, IMMP has worked diligently on the effort to defend the strong Dolphin Safe standards before the WTO.  WTO rules only allow representation of the country governments, not NGO’s like IMMP (one of the many flaws of the WTO).  So, IMMP’s work was to build the public consensus on the importance of the Dolphin Safe tuna label and urge the US tuna industry to continue to support the Dolphin Safe label standards, even if the standards were to be weakened by the WTO or the US government.  

David Phillips, Director of EII's IMMP, stated:  "After a decade, the Mexican government's lies and obfuscations have finally been denounced.  Their claims that fishing methods that target and kill dolphins are ‘dolphin safe’ are a fraud.  It's way past time for the Mexican tuna industry to follow the rest of the world's fisheries in prohibiting this cruel and destructive practice." 

IMMP staff also became a major source of information for the US Office of the Trade Representative (USTR) lawyers who argued the case before the WTO.  We provided considerable background information to USTR attorneys.  IMMP’s input helped USTR lawyers.

IMMP’s input helped invalidate Mexico’s arguments that they were losing millions of dollars due to restrictions limiting sales of their dolphin-deadly tuna in the US.  We provided copies of US tuna industry letters and policies demonstrating the US tuna industry’s support for truly Dolphin Safe tuna.  Mexico’s tuna is not welcome in US markets, and the WTO has been convinced by our work and submissions that Mexico’s claims of damages were exaggerated.  US consumers won’t buy tuna stained with the blood of dolphins.

The current US Dolphin Safe standards prohibit the encirclement of any dolphins in tuna purse seine nets during an entire fishing trip.

Mexico’s standards for “Amigo del Delfin” (Dolphin Friendly, the equivalent of Dolphin Safe) are quite a bit weaker.  Tuna vessels can still qualify for the label despite chasing, harassing, and netting dolphins as long as an onboard observer asserts no dolphins were observed killed.  

The phony label becomes even more meaningless when issues such as bribery and intimidation of observers; loss of baby dolphins (who cannot keep up with their mothers during the 20-40 minute chase phase of the dolphin encirclement in which the pod of dolphins is chased to exhaustion by speedboats); and losses of dolphins to injuries, predators, and physiological stress are considered.  

Indeed, scientists for the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have determined that despite low reported counts of mortality of dolphins in the tuna fishery, the dolphin populations are not increasing at rates expected, and may even be decreasing.  Photography from scientists’ helicopters of dolphin pods shows those pods that are set upon by tuna nets have far fewer young dolphins than pods that are not chased and netted.

All of this information was provided to the WTO panels, but Mexico kept submitting false information.  As the WTO tribunals are made up of trade specialists, not conservationists or scientists, many decisions over the past ten years from the WTO favored Mexico’s dolphin-killing tuna fleet.

With IMMP providing important information, the US government chose to keep the strong standards of the Dolphin Safe tuna label intact, rather than weakening the standards to allow Mexico’s dolphin-killing tuna fleet to slap a false Dolphin Safe label on their canned tuna products in the US.  (Mexico often claims they cannot sell tuna in the US, but that is also false.  Mexico can sell dolphin-deadly tuna in the US; they just can’t use the Dolphin Safe label to fool consumers.)

Instead of weakening the Dolphin Safe standards, the US government, through the USTR and the NMFS, strengthened the reporting and confirmation regulations of other tuna fisheries (although the association of dolphins with tuna is unique to the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean where the Mexican fleet operates, so dolphin deaths in other tuna fisheries are very rare).  These regulations, supported by IMMP, were key to the WTO decision that the Dolphin Safe label no longer discriminates against Mexico, because all fishermen have to meet the same regulations now to justify that their tuna is indeed Dolphin Safe.

In addition to IMMP, other organizations helped support the WTO effort by the USTR and NMFS, especially the legal work of the lawyers of the Humane Society International.  The US tuna industry’s support for the Dolphin Safe label was also key, something IMMP developed over many years of advocacy to the companies.

Finally, thanks should go to USTR’s Robert Lighthizer and the hard-working lawyers for the USTR and NMFS, who developed the regulations to strengthen, rather than weaken, compliance with the US Dolphin Safe standards.

We encourage you to send an email or letter of thanks to the US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, thanking him and his lawyers for their work in support of the Dolphin Safe tuna label.

Robert Lighthizer, US Trade Representative

US Office of the Trade Representative

600 17th Street NW
Washington, DC 20508

FAX:  202-395-4656