Earth Island Institute

WTO Tuna/Dolphin Decision Mixed

WTO Dispute Panel Backs US Objectives to Protect Dolphins, But Hedges on Details

Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project stated today that a decision by a WTO dispute panel on use of the “Dolphin Safe” tuna label was a mixed one, but not at all a win for Mexico’s dolphin-killing tuna industry.

“The Mexican government is trying to spin this mixed decision into a win for their continuing to chase and net dolphins in pursuit of tuna,“ stated David Phillips, Executive Director of Earth Island Institute.  “This is far from the truth.  The WTO panel expressly stated that Mexico’s method does not meet the US’s legitimate objectives to ensure that tuna caught by methods that harm dolphins is not falsely labeled for consumers as ‘Dolphin Safe.’ “

Earth Island works closely with the international tuna industry to ensure that dolphins are not harmed, chased, harassed, or caught in nets in order to catch tuna, a method called “fishing on dolphins.”  Earth Island and the tuna industry have set global standards for “Dolphin Safe” tuna that requires that fishermen do not chase or net dolphins.  More than 90% of the world’s tuna industry (more than 450 companies) adheres to Earth Island’s Dolphin Safe standards, which were adopted by the US Congress in 1990.

Dolphins often swim with tuna in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETPO), a large area running from Southern California to Peru and extending out into the Pacific Ocean almost to Hawai‘i.  Mexico and several other countries allow their tuna industry to deliberate target, chase and surround the dolphins with nets.  More than 7 million dolphins have been killed by this fishing method.  By contrast, Earth Island’s standards require tuna, in order to be labeled as “Dolphin Safe,” to be caught by other methods, such as using nets to encircle schools of tuna or floating objects unaccompanied by dolphins or using the old bait-boat method of chumming for tuna and catching them on hooks and lines.

Mexico brought the issue to the World Trade Organization, claiming the US label standards are a trade barrier.  The WTO dispute panel’s decision and report was made public today.

For a summary of the decision go to:

The decision establishes that the US objectives of avoiding any harm to dolphins are legitimate.  Further, the decision states that Mexico’s method of catching dolphins in nets does NOT meet the US objectives, so claims that Mexico will now be allowed to sell their tuna in the US falsely labeled as “Dolphin Safe” are simply smoke and mirrors.

The panel decision goes further suggesting that the US “Dolphin Safe” program does not meet the objectives either, because the US does not have the same restrictions and requirements in place for tuna caught in other areas of the world other than the ETPO.  It is a very rare event that dolphins are harmed in tuna fisheries outside of the ETPO, but the WTO panel clearly feels this is an issue.  If anything, this decision should strengthen the US Dolphin Safe tuna label by increasing regulation on tuna from other ocean areas.  Furthermore, the WTO panel claims that the US label is mandatory, while in fact US law makes clear use of the Dolphin Safe label is voluntary.

The dispute panel decision is not the final word on the subject.  Either the US or Mexico can appeal the decision, which would likely take several more years to resolve in the WTO. 

“Earth Island Institute and our Dolphin Safe/Fair Trade Coalition of environmental and animal welfare organizations are urging the US government to appeal those parts of the decision that went against the US,” stated Phillips.  “We are also standing firm that the US Congress should not change the US standards for the Dolphin Safe label.  The Dolphin Safe tuna program is one of the most popular and successful environmental efforts for consumers in the world.  More than 7 million dolphins have been killed due to Mexico’s and other countries’ focus on chasing and netting dolphins to catch tuna, and that fishing method must end.  The WTO dispute panel made some good decisions, but it also muddied things.  A clarification is needed.”

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

Earth Island Institute works to protect the biological and cultural diversity of the Earth.  The International Marine Mammal Project works to protect dolphins and whales and their ocean habitats.  For more information on the Dolphin Safe label and Earth Island’s international program, go to:

International Marine Mammal Project
is a project of Earth Island Institute.
2150 Allston Way, Suite 460, Berkeley, California, 94707 USA
(510) 859-9146 · FAX: (510) 859-9093
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