On Wednesday the World Trade Organization ruled against the sale of cans of tuna labeled “dolphin safe,” arguing that the practice discriminates against Mexican fishermen and that the United States’ definition of “dolphin safe” tuna unfairly restricts trade. The WTO decision threatens a business practice that has been in place for over 20 years. Environmentalists and businesses both criticized the ruling for potentially threatening dolphin species in the Pacific Ocean as well as interfering with U.S. consumers’ choices.
The dispute between Mexico and the U.S. is over techniques used to harvest tuna. Mexican fishing boats are known to use dolphins to round up tuna, a practice once common in U.S. waters but now discouraged. The U.S. contends that the such practices harm dolphins. Mexico counters that its methods are safe and that the U.S. dolphin safe labeling system unfairly restricts trade.
The American definition of dolphin-safe tuna is more restrictive than internationally-accepted standards. The U.S. requires that tuna are caught without the use of huge nets, called purse seine nets, to encircle dolphins and also mandates that no dolphins are killed or injured during the process. Tuna and dolphins often swim together throughout the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean in enormous schools, and until the 1980s indiscriminate fishing practices led to many dolphins killed or mutilated while tuna were harvested by commercial fishing boats.
Mexican fishing boats are allowed to chase and encircle dolphins in order to catch tuna, but in the U.S. such a practice means that the “dolphin-safe” label cannot be placed on canned tuna. Now, almost every large American supermarket chain will not stock tuna products without the label, and those differences in fishing practices and labeling standards are behind the dispute between Mexico and U.S. fisheries that dates back to 1991.
The Earth Island Institute, which developed the U.S. voluntary standard for dolphin-safe tuna, called the WTO decision “absurd,” and the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said it would stand by the labeling system. Public Citizen also criticized the ruling, saying that it was “a major blow to consumers’ ability to make free and informed choices” about how food is sourced and processed. In the aftermath of the WTO’s ruling, one option the U.S. has is to train Mexican fisherman on safe fishing practices without encircling and chasing dolphins. Meanwhile, other environmental groups point out that dolphin-safe does not necessarily mean that approved fishing practices are protecting other species living in the oceans.