The World Trade Organization delivered a decisive victory today to protect dolphins in one of the longest-running global fights for animal welfare. All tuna sold in the United States with the dolphin-safe label must be caught using methods designed to protect dolphins from harm. Fishing fleets that intentionally chase down, harass and set nets on dolphins as a way of catching the schools of tuna that swim beneath the dolphins will not be able to sell their tuna as “dolphin-safe” in our country.
For 30 years now, the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International have been battling the Mexican government and factions in the U.S. Congress to protect dolphins from fleets that target them, often injuring and killing them in attempts to catch the tuna that swim below them. But with the WTO’s appellate body today upholding a panel ruling from October 2017 that found that the U.S. amendments to its dolphin-safe labeling regime brought it into compliance with WTO rules, the battle appears to be over.
I have been involved in this campaign since my earliest days at the HSUS back in the early 1990s. Little did I know that it would take nearly three decades for the legal battles to conclude, but I am overjoyed with the result. I am proud of my colleagues for staying the course, fighting long and hard and often against tough odds, in order to prevent the injuring and drowning of extraordinary numbers of dolphins — with some estimates running in excess of seven million killed in the last few decades.
I won’t ever forget how appalling it was to see commercial fishing fleets harassing and separating mothers and their calves as vessels set nets wide and deep, routinely drowning countless dolphins — air breathing mammals who became trapped in purse seine nets
In the 1980s, Congress imposed an embargo on tuna caught this way and required that all canned tuna sold in the U.S. market be labeled to prove that the tuna was dolphin-safe, involving no chasing and netting of these cetaceans.
The Mexican tuna industry – which wanted to continue setting nets on dolphins – fought back against the U.S. label, convincing many in Congress to vote to weaken the label and focus only on observed injuries or deaths to dolphins, thereby allowing tuna caught by chasing dolphins for miles and encircling them with nets to be labeled dolphin-safe.
Before that legislation was made final, then Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Cal, and Joe Biden, D-Del., worked to create standards that stipulated that if tuna sold in the United States was to be labeled dolphin-safe, the government had to prove that the fishing methods were not harming dolphin populations.
It was that language that was in dispute when the issue found its way into our federal courts. U.S. District Courts and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals consistently ruled that chasing and harassing dolphins does harm dolphins, both as individuals and as populations — barring fishing interests from getting access to the U.S. market and trading on the dolphin-safe label. That was the just outcome, for a number of reasons
When those federal court rulings went our way, Mexico and the fishing fleet interests took the United States to court before the WTO. That battle went on for years, but a second key maneuver (after the Boxer-Biden amendments) was an effort by the Obama administration to apply U.S. tuna fishing import rules to all oceans, not just fishing in the Pacific. That proved a critical tactical move, for it ensured that tuna fishing worldwide — and not just in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean where the tuna-dolphin association occurs — would have to be done in a dolphin-safe manner in order to qualify for the U.S. label. It is these improved rules that the WTO examined and found today do comply with international rules and do not discriminate against Mexico.
Tuna can be sold in the United States today if fishing fleets set nets on dolphins. But it won’t get the label. And Americans generally want nothing to do with that kind of tuna, because we’re a dolphin-loving society.
Over the years, we’ve learned to refrain from calling any ruling the final word on a subject. But today appears to be different, as Mexico has run out of ways to challenge the measure. We would like to thank the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service for their unfailing support of the dolphin-safe tuna label at the WTO. We’re celebrating this Friday afternoon, and I’d like to think that the dolphins are celebrating right along with us.