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Trade Dispute With Mexico Over 'Dolphin-Safe' Tuna Heats Up


Look closely at just about any can of tuna sold in the U.S. and you'll find a tiny stamp. Now for more than 20 years, that stamp has certified that no dolphins were harmed or killed when the tuna was caught. For nearly that long, Mexico and the U.S. have been fighting over that label. Mexico says it's made great strides protecting dolphins and that the U.S. now unfairly blocks Mexican tuna from its markets.

This summer, the World Trade Organization sided with Mexico, but nothing's changed. And that has fishermen south of the border upset. From Ensenada, Mexico, NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Fishmongers in Ensenada's outdoor market on the port city's marina shout out the catch of the day.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Carp, grouper, rock fish and, of course, the most famous catch from these Pacific waters, yellowfin tuna. Jose Carlos Guitierrez(ph) has been fishing tuna here since he was eight.

JOSE CARLOS GUITIERREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Life in Ensenada revolved around tuna, says Guitierrez, who spent more than 30 years in the business. Now 50, he's a tour boat captain, taking tourists out on 45-minute trips around the bay.

GUITIERREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Guitierrez says there used to be lots of work here - there were canneries, boat repair jobs - but no more. In the 1990s, the U.S. declared Mexico's tuna dolphin-unsafe. As many as 100,000 dolphins a year were dying due to Mexico's large net fishing tactics that encircles the dolphin pods to get to the huge schools of tuna swimming below. But over the years, those numbers have dropped significantly. Fishermen now use techniques so the mammals can escape. They've banned night fishing. And all boats in Mexico's tuna fleet have independent observers onboard.

Dr. Michel Dreyfus of the Autonomous University of Baja California says not only is dolphin mortality now practically zero, on par with natural births, but the tuna stocks are healthier too.

DR. MICHEL DREYFUS: Actually, the best way to fish is with dolphins because you are catching the adults after they have been able to spawn. Basically, all the tuna that are - is with dolphins are adults.

KAHN: Dreyfus and other Mexican officials say the way the U.S. fleet fishes in the Western Pacific Ocean is harmful. There, dolphins and tuna don't swim together so nets aren't set on the mammals. But other species like sharks and turtles and the occasional dolphin get caught up in U.S. nets, as well as tons of juvenile tuna. Mario Aguilar is Mexico's Fisheries Commissioner.

MARIO AGUILAR: That's why it's important for the U.S. consumers to know what's really going in the oceans, which tuna is really dolphin-safe and which one is not.

KAHN: Aguilar says dolphins may not be targeted in the Western Pacific Ocean where the U.S. fishes, but they are being killed.

AGUILAR: That label means absolutely nothing in terms of sustainability. That label has been used to can tuna that could have caused severe mortalities of dolphins and other marine species of the ecosystem.

KAHN: And it's not just Mexicans who say they're being judged more harshly than other fishermen in the world. The World Trade Organization agrees. It ruled the U.S. discriminates against Mexico and must open its markets to Mexican tuna, or face possible retaliatory trade sanctions.

But Mark Palmer of the environmental group Earth Island says Mexico should be treated differently than other fishermen. He says they refuse to give up a fishing practice that chases, harasses and kills more than a thousand dolphins every year.

MARK PALMER: The number of dolphins being killed is keeping the populations from recovering, so it's not a dolphin-safe practice at all to be chasing and netting dolphins for this purpose. And Mexico is being very misleading and very dubious in their claims that this is a safe way to catch tuna.

KAHN: In response to the WTO ruling, the U.S. says it will monitor boats in the Western Pacific more stringently. That pleases U.S. environmentalists, but Mexico has prepared a formal objection.

Ensenada boat owner Carlos Hussong says even if the U.S. eventually let in Mexico's tuna, Ensenada will never return to the way it was.

CARLOS HUSSONG: It will never come back, no. That's a reality. But it doesn't really matter.

KAHN: He says at this point, the main issue now is more about fairness and making sure Mexico gets equal treatment. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.



You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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