WTO ruling on tuna is a victory for the environment and consumers

Mark Robertson President, Potomac Global Advisors
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Last week, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that the U.S.’s “dolphin safe” tuna labeling standards unfairly discriminate against Mexican tuna producers. The ruling, which resolves a longstanding dispute between the United States and Mexico, is a victory for the global environment and American consumers.

The WTO found that the U.S. labeling standards create an arbitrary distinction between two methods of sustainable tuna fishing — declaring one safe and the other unsafe. This arbitrary distinction, the WTO ruled, undermined the stated objective of the dolphin-safe labeling standards: to provide full and accurate information to American consumers about whether dolphins were harmed in the capture of the tuna that is sold in stores across the country.

In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of dolphins died in the eastern Pacific fishery, where American and Mexican fleets fish for tuna. Recognizing the problem, the U.S. and Mexico worked together to develop and implement what has become arguably the most successful and highly acclaimed fishery and resource management regime in the world. Through multilateral cooperation and a legally binding, transparent and verifiable dolphin protection and fishery management program, the Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program (AIDCP), the number of dolphin mortalities in the eastern Pacific has been reduced by 99 percent. Among the reforms: a requirement that all tuna-fishing boats have independent scientific observers on board and the adoption of comprehensive improvements in specially designed gear and fishing techniques to ensure dolphins are released safely if encircled.

Even as the U.S. has acknowledged the AIDCP’s success, it has maintained its outdated dolphin-safe legislation, perpetuating a different, unverifiable standard that encourages predatory and unsustainable fishing practices that result in high levels of “bycatch” — a term for fish caught unintentionally —- sometimes exceeding 50 percent of a haul. That’s why it’s become common for tuna fishermen to use artificial fish aggregating devices, which have been decried by responsible environmental groups for their significant adverse impacts on the sustainability of fisheries.

The dolphin mortality crisis in the eastern Pacific has already been addressed. Now, our collective attention needs to turn to the environmental and sustainability challenges facing fisheries in other parts of the world. The WTO ruling is a step in the right direction.

Mark Robertson, the president of Potomac Global Advisors in Washington, worked in Congress for 17 years and, for the past 20 years, has worked on many of the most challenging issues on the bilateral, U.S.-Mexico agenda on behalf of various ministries, companies and industries in Mexico.