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Going Green: Dolphin dispute

U.S. defends its Dolphin Safe tuna policy against criticism from Mexico, WTO ruling

U.S. dolphin conservation measures are considered the world’s most stringent. - Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries
By James Wright
December 05, 2011

For 21 years, U.S. consumers have plucked canned tuna from supermarket shelves confident that the product was harvested without harming dolphins, an animal beloved for its intelligence and gregariousness with both humans and fellow sea creatures.

The shelf-stable product is nutritious, affordable and now at the center of a trade dispute between the United States and Mexico over the U.S. policy intended to protect the marine mammals. The World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled in September that the policy hurts Mexico, which argues that it has been essentially shut out of the market for Americans’ second-favorite seafood product.

With an appeal of the ruling likely, a resolution to the matter won’t be coming soon. But for Mexico, it’s been a long wait already.

In 1990, the U.S. Department of Commerce established the Dolphin Safe label at the behest of protesting consumers. The logo not only assures that the fishing vessels didn’t kill dolphins, but also that the animals were never in harm’s way in the process of harvesting tuna; it appears on the vast majority of tuna cans sold in U.S. stores.

U.S. Dolphin Safe policy is intentionally strict and stronger than most international tuna-trade agreements. Canners must submit reports about all the tuna in their facilities each month, including data about dolphin interactions, capture areas, trip dates and quantity. Any vessel with a carrying capacity of more than 400 tons must have an observer on board.

Americans enjoy tuna from all over the world; Mexico is one of those places, although most tuna imported from Mexico is fresh or frozen bluefin or yellowfin — not usually the pre-cooked skipjack or albacore in 3-ounce tins.

The United States’ southern neighbor believes that the Dolphin Safe policy is too restrictive and in 2008 it filed a multi-faceted complaint with the WTO, saying that the regulations are inconsistent, discriminatory and unnecessary. The WTO decided that the U.S. Dolphin Safe policy does not discriminate against Mexico, but that it is overly restrictive to trade. A third-party panel concluded that U.S. dolphin-safe regulations only “partly address the legitimate objectives pursued by the United States” and that Mexico had provided a “less trade-restrictive alternative.”

The ruling appeared to put the Dolphin Safe logo’s future in question and raised the possibility of trade sanctions. An appeal of the ruling is almost a certainty, says a U.S. tuna-harvesting policy expert, who doesn’t expect any changes.

“U.S. policy is, and has been, ‘You may not encircle, chase or harass dolphins in the course of harvesting tuna.’ That’s the proper way to go,” says Randi Thomas, principal of Rpt Advisors in Hanover, Md., and a former executive of the U.S. Tuna Foundation, an organization founded by major U.S. tuna companies and whose duties now reside within the National Fisheries Institute’s Tuna Council.

The U.S. firms, Thomas adds, “went with that policy long before it even was law. It’s totally ingrained within the companies and that’s what people expect, that dolphins won’t be hurt in any way.” The companies don’t want to soften their stance, she adds. “They will abide by the current definition. And Congress won’t weaken the regulations. How could Congressmen go to their constituents and say, ‘We’re going to relax the meaning of Dolphin Safe’? It’s not going to happen. I’d expect huge fights over that.”

Mexican authorities have long argued that fishermen there cannot afford to abandon the purse-seining method so effective at harvesting tuna. But the policy doesn’t forbid purse seining, a method used to harvest the vast majority of tuna worldwide. Nor does it act as a trade barrier, says Thomas.

Mexican officials disagree, saying that they have worked diligently to reduce dolphin mortality caused by their fleet. Mexico’s fisheries and aquaculture agency, CONAPESCA, has also determined that its tuna fleet has been reduced by about one-third over the past 20 years since the U.S. embargo went into effect. CONAPESCA has previously estimated that the U.S. canned tuna market would be worth about $100 million to Mexican exporters annually.

Mario Aguilars, a CONAPESCA representative who works out of the Mexican Embassy to the United States in Washington, D.C., says international dolphin-conservation measures are being adhered to and should be sufficient.

There are numerous U.S. protections in place for dolphins, like the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Tuna Conventions Act and the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act, and international resolutions adopted by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission and by the Parties to the Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program (AIDCP). AIDCP was established in 1999 and has 12 member nations, including the United States and Mexico, with several others, including the European Union, applying the agreement provisionally.

>An environmental organization involved with the Dolphin Safe policy since its inception says the Mexican government is trying to spin a “mixed decision” in its favor.

“The WTO panel expressly stated that Mexico’s method does not meet the United States’ legitimate objectives to ensure that tuna caught by methods that harm dolphins is not falsely labeled for consumers as ‘Dolphin Safe,’” says David Phillips, executive director of Earth Island Institute in Berkeley, Calif.

Mexico’s struggles to avoid dolphin interactions could be unique, considering its close proximity to a marine region that boasts one of nature’s most peculiar inter-species relationships. In the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, dolphins and tunas frequently swim together; dolphins near the surface, with the tunas typically beneath them.

“It doesn’t happen anywhere else,” says Thomas. “It’s a unique bond.”
Unfortunately, dolphins’ attraction to schooling tuna in this region has worked against them. In the 1950s, fishermen were able to easily track tuna by following the leaping mammals, a process known as “fishing on dolphins.” More than 7 million dolphins were killed in the process, according to Earth Island Institute, until decades later U.S. policy de-incentivized fishing methods that harmed them.

Phillips hopes U.S. policy remains the strongest in the world, adding that the WTO ruling only “muddied” things.

“The Dolphin Safe tuna label has saved millions of dolphins from drowning in tuna nets,” says Phillips. “It should not be weakened due to trade bias and false claims by Mexico.”

Email Associate Editor James Wright at jwright@divcom.com
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