The Dolphin-Safe Tuna Label: Good for Dolphins, Bad for Trade?

Posted on by kginter

How many of you feel better knowing that your favorite tuna salad sandwich is made with dolphin-safe tuna? The “dolphin-safe” tuna label that is popular among tuna-buying consumers was adopted in the US in 1990 to encourage consumers to purchase tuna products that were caught without harming dolphins, which are a frequent “by-catch” from tuna fishing. Now, however, the country of Mexico is alleging that the USA dolphin-safe tuna label law is an unfair barrier to trade.

Are US Dolphin-Safe Tuna Label Laws Overly Restrictive?

An issue in the seafood industry over the past couple of years has been that the Mexican government believes that their product (yellow fin tuna) is being overlooked and excluded by the major tuna brands in the US because Mexican fishermen have no way of officially verifying that they follow the same “dolphin-safe” fishing standards as are required in the US. Because of Mexico’s lack of protocol, tuna brands are unable to label Mexican-origin tuna product as “dolphin-safe.”

An article by John Heilprin of the Associated Press stated that Mexico “claimed its tuna production complied with international standards on reducing the accidental capture of dolphins in commercial fishing nets, but that the US rules prohibited Mexico from using the “dolphin-safe” label needed to sell the product in the US.”

Is this the End of the US Dolphin-Safe Tuna Label?

Just last week, a World Trade Organization panel ruled that the “dolphin-safe” tuna labels are illegal because they restrict trade too much, saying that the label regulations “are more trade-restrictive than necessary to fulfill the legitimate objectives “of (i) ensuring that consumers are not misled or deceived about whether tuna products contain tuna that was caught in a manner that adversely affects dolphins  and (ii) contributing to the protection of dolphins.”

The Mexican Economy Secretary said “The WTO ruling is a crushing blow to the label ‘dolphin-safe’ and opens the way for Mexican producers to enter the U.S. market without restrictions, as is their right,” according to a quote in the Huffington Post.

Lori Wallach of Public Citizen advocacy group believes the dolphin-safe label is an integral part of helping consumers to make wise buying choices. She said that banishing the dolphin-safe tuna label “is among the few things likely to unite Americans across the political spectrum.” The US may appeal the WTO ruling, according to spokeswoman Andrea Mead of the US Trade Representative’s office.

Beyond the US Dolphin-Safe Label:

Voluntary Dolphin-Safe Labels

It is important to know that consumers can look for other voluntary dolphin safe labels outside of the US Commerce Department label that is affected by the WTO ruling:

Earth Institute Dolphin Safe Label Logo: The Earth Institute Dolphin-Safe label on a tuna product indicates that the tuna has not been caught using a fishing method that nets dolphins, encircles dolphins, or chases dolphins.



Flipper Seal of Approval: In addition to US Commerce Department regulations, companies that have earned the Flipper Seal of Approval (FSA) from Earthtrust agree not to sell tuna if dolphins were harmed during the fishing process. Moreover, brands that carry the FSA seal agree to take positive action to help dolphins. Earthtrust is a non-profit wildlife conservation organization headquarters in Honolulu, HI.



How The US Dolphin Safe Tuna Label Came to Be…

In 1992, Congress passed the Dolphin Protection Consumer Act which led to the “Dolphin-Safe” label for tuna packaging.

At First, No Dolphins Could Be Netted.
Originally, the label could only be used if no dolphins were netted during the tuna fishing process. Then, in 1997, the International Dolphin Conservation Program Act (IDCPA) gave authorization to use the “Dolphin Safe” label for tuna caught using “trap and release nets.” Under IDCPA rules, any dolphins caught in the trapping process be released and shipboard observers from the National Marine Fisheries Service must investigate to be sure that no dolphins were harmed or killed during the process, in accordance with the US Department of Commerce.

Then, Studies Showed that Trap and Release Fishing is Safe.
It was also decided that the Commerce Department must conduct studies to determine that trap and release tuna fishing doesn’t harm independent dolphin populations. In 2002, the Commerce Secretary concluded that encirclement and trap and release using seine nets was not having a “significant adverse impact” on depleted dolphin stocks. The Secretary’s findings OK’d using the “dolphin-safe” label on tuna caught via encirclement, if the dolphins were not harmed or killed.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Do you think the “dolphin-safe” tuna labeling standards are too restrictive? Or just right?

Should the US and Mexico compromise on a way to verify that Mexican Yellow Fin tuna is in fact “dolphin-safe”?

More Resources About The Dolphin-Safe Tuna Label:

Dolphin Safe Label – Wikipedia

Flipper Seal of Approval – Earthtrust

Dolphin Safe Program – Earth Institute

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