The World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled against Mexico yesterday in a long-standing dispute with the United States over market rules for the labeling and exportation of Mexican tuna.
For almost a decade, Mexico has claimed that the U.S. has discriminated against its tuna industry by not granting dolphin-safe labeling accreditation to Mexican producers despite complying with its requirements. Mexican tuna is consequently prevented from entering the lucrative U.S. canned tuna market.
Yesterday’s ruling upheld the claim that the U.S. had not discriminated unfairly against Mexican producers, effectively supporting its position that at least some Mexican tuna fishermen still use dragnets, which can result in dolphin by-catch and, in many cases, causing their death.
United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who also heads the U.S. negotiating team at the ongoing NAFTA talks, released a statement saying he was happy with the decision.
“I am pleased that WTO panels have finally agreed with the overwhelming evidence that U.S. dolphin-safe labeling requirements are accurate and fair,” he said.
But Mexico’s Economy Secretariat (SE) announced it would appeal the decision, arguing that “it does not agree with the legal reasoning of the WTO ruling” and that Mexico had been treated unfairly by the application of the U.S. regulations.
“[The rules] have impeded the effective commercialization of Mexican tuna products in the U.S. market [despite] fishing methods utilized by the Mexican fleet comply[ing] with the highest international standards for the protection of dolphins,” the secretariat said in a press release.
Mexico and the United States have clashed on the issue for more than 20 years since the U.S. first imposed restrictions on the import of Mexican tuna.
Under U.S. law, if a country cannot demonstrate that it has complied with dolphin-protection norms, its tuna exports are banned.
But Mexico claims that its tuna catch continued to be denied dolphin-safe labeling even when it had proven that it was. In 2008, it took the case to the WTO.
In 2011, the WTO ruled in Mexico’s favor stating that the U.S. labeling requirements on Mexican tuna violated international trade rules. The U.S. subsequently challenged the ruling but in 2015 it was confirmed by the WTO Appellate Body.
In 2016, the U.S. modified its tuna-labeling rules to extend beyond the Pacific Ocean after the Mexican government had complained that it didn’t apply the same strict rules to other tuna-exporting countries. The new rules placed the onus on captains to ensure their fishing methods were dolphin-friendly.
However, Mexico continued to argue that the rules were “vague” and difficult to accurately monitor.
In May this year, Mexico won another WTO ruling that authorized it to impose trade sanctions on the U.S. of up to US $163 million annually to compensate for losses to its tuna industry, although to date it has not applied them.
The Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission says the death of dolphins caused by Mexican tuna fishing is almost zero but while dolphin-safe accreditation continues to be denied, U.S. retailers’ shelves will remain free of Mexican tuna.