The Loma Prietan - November/December 2011

What Happened to Dolphin-Safe Tuna?

by Joan Jones Holtz

Photo: Faisal Zakaria Siddiqi
Photo: Faisal Zakaria Siddiqi

Does US trade policy affect environmental protections? You bet it does!

1959 - 1972: Millions of dolphins drowned when they became ensnarled in mile-long fishing nets used to catch tuna. Fishermen off Southern California, Mexico, and South America, would deliberately chase schools of dolphin to encircle them in huge purse seine nets.

1972: In response to an outraged American public, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The MMPA prohibited US fishermen from using purse seine nets to catch tuna.

1988: Congress passed amendments to the MMPA, banning tuna imports from countries whose fishermen used purse seine nets to catch tuna. At least three species of dolphins had been severely depleted due to this method of fishing.

1990: Congress passed the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act and created the popular “dolphin-safe” label for cans of tuna. Sales of tuna without the “dolphin-safe” labels suffered. Dolphin deaths dropped dramatically—from 423,678 deaths in 1972 to15,550 in 1992.

1991: Mexico challenged the US ban on tuna caught in Mexican waters. A General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) panel backed them up. However, both the US and Mexico agreed to drop the matter. Why? Because the North American Free Trade Agreement was about to be introduced in Congress, and its passage was in doubt. Both countries knew that publicity about the dolphin safety controversy could doom NAFTA.

1995: Mexico again challenged the US dolphin protections by threatening a World Trade Organization enforcement case against the US. Anxious to be on good terms with our new Mexican NAFTA partners, President Clinton promised Mexican President Zedillo to weaken the dolphin protection standard. Congress passed legislation allowing imported tuna to use the “dolphin-safe” label, however caught, as long as monitors did not actually see dolphins killed or injured. Various groups fought against the weakening of the law, pointing out that a monitor on a large fishing boat could not possibly monitor all activities surrounding the boat.

1999: Secretary of Commerce Bill Daley (now President Obama’s Chief of Staff) determined that there was insufficient evidence that “chase and encirclement” by the tuna purse seine fishing method had any effect on the safety of the dolphins.

2000: A US District Court rejected the Department of Commerce’s attempt to weaken standards on dolphin-safe labeling. The decision was hailed by environmental groups and lawmakers who had worked to establish the dolphin-safe label. They rebuked the Clinton administration for “selling out” dolphin protections to accommodate a handful of foreign fishing companies.

2008: Mexico filed a new attack on US dolphin protections, alleging that they violated the WTO agreement on “Technical Barriers to Trade.”

2011: The US dolphin-safe tuna labeling rule was deemed a WTO violation. Purely voluntary dolphin-safe labeling could impede non-labeled tuna from marketing opportunities in the US. US consumers who prefer to buy dolphin-safe tuna will no longer have any means of determining which tuna was caught by dolphin-safe methods.

Joan Jones Holtz is a member of the Sierra Club Responsible Trade Team.