In the last 25 years, dolphin-safe labeling of tuna managed to reduce unnecessary annual deaths of the mammals from over 100,000 to only 3,000—an astounding 97% reduction—but the World Trade Organization just effectively nullified this critical program.
In order to placate Mexico as a member nation of the upcoming (and seemingly inevitable) Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the WTO deemeddolphin-safe labeling a “technical barrier to trade”—even though that environmentally-conscious label is voluntary and applies equally to domestic and foreign companies. At issue are fishing methods that exploit the as-yet-unexplained symbiotic relationship between tunas and dolphins. As the Sierra Club explained:
“Tunas and dolphins are commonly found together in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Taking advantage of this, many fishing companies purposefully ensnare dolphins in their nets so as to trap tuna, killing and injuring dolphins in the process. In 1990, the U.S. enacted a ban on imports of tuna caught with dolphin-unsafe practices and regulated ‘dolphin-safe’ tuna labeling.”
Considering the vast reduction in extraneous deaths since that label was enacted in the 1980s, most consumers responded favorably toward protecting dolphins—mammals that, incidentally, were declared “non-human persons” by India in February 2014. As India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests explained at the time:
“Whereas cetaceans [dolphins, whales, porpoises] in general are highly intelligent and sensitive, and various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that the unusually high intelligence as compared to other animals means that dolphins should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights . . .”
This ruling by the WTO is the fourth and final against U.S. attempts to continue dolphin-safe labeling, despite modifications and improvementsthat sought to rectify any difficulty experienced by the Mexican tuna fishing industry. Rejecting claims the label is both “legitimate” for the protection of dolphins and important for “the conservation of exhaustible natural resources,” the WTO’s decision stated the voluntary label has been applied “arbitrarily.” Mexico first launched the complaint with the WTO in 2008, and rulings against the U.S. came in 2011, 2012, and twice this year—but now the U.S. has exhausted the appeals process and is left without further recourse.
Should the WTO ruling be ignored, the U.S. will face authorized trade sanctions. If any further evidence were needed to prove the dangerous overreach of the enormous TPP in protecting industry over consumer rights—including the right to know whether what we consume has been procured ethically—this abrupt end to a stunningly effective, voluntary label is it.
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