WTO Issues Panel’s Findings on U.S.-Mexico Tuna-Dolphin Dispute

The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) dispute panel has found that the U.S. requirements for a “dolphin-safe” label on tuna products are more trade-restrictive than necessary to fulfill the U.S. objectives. The WTO published the dispute panel’s findings in a case brought by Mexico against the United States relating to the U.S. requirements for “dolphin-safe” labeling. Mexico had claimed that the U.S. measures were inconsistent with several articles of the WTO’s Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement (TBT) — that the U.S. measures were discriminatory and were more trade-restrictive than needed to fulfill U.S. objectives.

The dispute panel found that the labeling requirements did not discriminate against Mexican tuna products, which aren’t given less favorable treatment than tuna from the U.S. or other countries.

However, importantly, the dispute panel found for Mexico in its claim that the “dolphin-safe” labels went beyond what was necessary to achieve the U.S. objectives and thus were not consistent with Article 2.2 of the TBT Agreement, which requires that technical regulations “are not prepared, adopted or applied with a view to, or with the effect of, creating unnecessary obstacles to trade.”

This particular dispute originated in October 2008 when Mexico asked for WTO consultations with the U.S. on these labeling requirements. However, the broader issue between the U.S. and Mexico of whether Mexico’s tuna fishing harms dolphins goes back 20 years. Since that time, tuna imports from Mexico have been limited since U.S. Commerce Department rules haven’t allowed the labeling of Mexican-caught tuna as dolphin-safe. Mexico, however, says that its tuna-fishing meets international standards of protecting dolphins.

This case is an important one as some countries use non-tariff barriers to protect their domestic industries or to advance environmental goals. (See a 1996 CEI article about the Basel Convention’s impact on international trade.)