Mexico has long argued that U.S. labeling rules for dolphin-safe tuna unfairly restrict its access to the U.S. market. And in a decision Tuesday, the World Trade Organization agreed, saying Mexico may seek $163 million annually from the U.S. in retaliatory measures.
The controversial labeling rules, aimed at protecting dolphins from getting ensnared in fishing nets and killed, date back to 1990.
"The U.S. has long criticized Mexico's fishing practices in Pacific waters, saying its use of nets and chasing dolphins to find large schools of lucrative yellow fin tuna greatly harms the mammals," NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Mexico City.
"The U.S. allows the dolphin-safe label on tuna cans that meet its no-kill standards," Carrie adds. "Mexico says it has brought down dolphin deaths to international standards but has long been refused the label."
Mexico had claimed that its annual losses amounted to $472.3 million, far exceeding the U.S. claim of $8.5 million to $21.9 million. But the WTO put the figure at $163 million a year.
Following the decision, The Associated Press reported, Mexico's government said in a statement that it would " 'immediately ask the WTO's Dispute Settlement Body for authorization to suspend benefits' and also begin an internal process of targeting imports from the United States."
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said in a statement that the decision was disappointing, saying it "dramatically overstates the actual level of trade effects on sales of Mexican tuna caught by intentionally chasing and capturing dolphins in nets." The statement added that the trade body did not consider the latest version of the labeling rules.
In Tuesday's decision, the WTO arbitrator stated that the labeling rules restricted the supply of tuna imported from Mexico, but did not agree with Mexico's claim that it was "tantamount to an import ban."
The U.S. had argued that its consumer demand for tuna has declined. But the arbitrator said that while it's not clear why U.S. citizens are buying less tuna, a sharp drop occurred around the same time the labeling rules were introduced in 1990 — which the arbitrator said would be an unusual coincidence.
And counter to the U.S. argument that some of its canneries prefer dolphin-safe fish, the arbitrator said it's plausible that there would be demand for Mexican tuna at U.S. canneries without the restrictions.
Mexico has said for years that its fishermen are "judged more harshly than other fishermen in the world," as Carrie reported back in 2013. She noted that:
"As many as 100,000 dolphins a year were dying due to Mexico's large net fishing tactics that encircles the dolphin pods to get to the huge schools of tuna swimming below. But over the years, those numbers have dropped significantly. Fishermen now use techniques so the mammals can escape. They've banned night fishing. And all boats in Mexico's tuna fleet have independent observers onboard."
But environmental groups such as Earth Island Institute remain unconvinced by Mexico's practices, saying the country's tuna is "stained by the blood of dolphins."
Tuesday's decision isn't the first time the WTO has sided with Mexico in the tuna dispute.
In 2013, in response to a separate WTO decision, the U.S. changed its labeling rules in response to claims by Mexico that it was being unfairly singled out, as Reuters reported. But the news service added that "the WTO said the rule change was not enough."
Tuesday's decision considered the 2013 version of the rule, even though the U.S. changed it again in 2016 "by expanding the tougher rules to all countries," according to Reuters.
It adds that because the WTO didn't consider the latest rules, the long-running dispute will run a little longer, with another decision on the matter expected by the trade body in July.