U.S. to appeal WTO dolphin-safe tuna ruling


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
January 22, 2012

The United States will appeal a World Trade Organization decision from September that ruled U.S. dolphin-safe tuna policies are overly restrictive.

The Obama administration on Friday decided to appeal the ruling that favored Mexico, which for two decades has argued that U.S. tuna import policies have shut them out of the market for one of America’s favorite seafood products, canned tuna. Sales of Mexican tuna to the U.S. have been limited since the policy was implemented in 1991.

“Our dolphin-safe labeling measures for tuna products provide information for American consumers as they make food- purchasing decisions for their families,” Andrea Mead, press secretary for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, said in a statement. “Our decision to appeal the WTO ruling in this case demonstrates the commitment of the United States to our dolphin-safe labeling measures.”

Even if the United States opted not to appeal the ruling, it is unlikely that the nation’s top three tuna companies — StarKist, Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee — would alter their sourcing policies, says one tuna industry expert.

Randi Thomas, principal of Rpt Advisors in Hanover, Md., told SeaFood Business in November that U.S. policy to not accept tuna from vessels that “encircle, chase or harass dolphins” was not negotiable.

“It’s totally ingrained within the companies and that’s what people expect, that dolphins won’t be hurt in any way,” said Thomas.

The U.S. and Mexico require inspectors aboard tuna vessels during fishing trips. Both nations are members of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, which helps enforce international dolphin-protection standards. The WTO judges in their 15 September ruling also rejected Mexico’s claim that “dolphin-safe” labeling provisions are discriminatory.

According to a report on Bloomberg.com, Mexican officials are planning to file a counter-appeal within five days, and will ask the WTO to reconsider its ruling against Mexico’s claim that the labeling provisions are discriminatory. Mexico filed its complaint against the United States at the WTO in October 2008.

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.

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