Tuna-Dolphin Issue — Again a WTO Decision

No, tuna-dolphin is not a hybrid fish, but the subject of a long-standing trade dispute between Mexico and the United States arising from a 1990 U.S. law setting out requirements for a “dolphin safe” label for tuna products imported or sold in the U.S.  Because Mexican tuna fishermen use different methods for catching tuna than allowed under the labeling requirements, Mexico’s tuna imports to the U.S. have been limited.  Mexico challenged that law with the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2008, resulting in a Dispute Panel’s mixed decision in 2011.  In an important decision regarding Mexico’s appeal, an Appellate Body, on May 16, 2012, reversed several of the Dispute Panel’s 2011 findings. In particular, it found that the labeling requirements unfairly restrict Mexico’s tuna trade:

The Appellate Body reasoned, first, that, by excluding most Mexican tuna products from access to the “dolphin-safe” label while granting access to most US tuna products and tuna products from other countries, the measure modifies the conditions of competition in the US market to the detriment of Mexican tuna products.

The U.S. labeling requirements don’t allow tuna to be caught with purse seine nets.  However, Mexico had claimed that their fishing techniques met international requirements, which don’t exclude using those nets.  In its decision the WTO noted that it wasn’t convinced that other tuna fishing techniques in other waters resulted in less risk to dolphins and found that:

[T]he measure at issue is not even-handed in the manner in which it addresses the risks to dolphins arising from different fishing techniques in different areas of the ocean.

While this particular dispute rose in October 2008, tuna-dolphin issues between Mexico and the U.S. extend back to 1991 under the WTO’s predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which brought to the fore issues relating to international trade and the environment. In that decision, GATT gave credence to the acceptability of extra-territorial trade restrictions, particularly when included in multilateral agreements.

This decision is a critical one in the debate over the use of non-tariff barriers to protect domestic industries or to advance environmental goals.  (See a 1996 CEI issue brief on how environmental issues were already being used to justify trade restrictions.)