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Current U.S. Law & Policy

The principal U.S. law on natural resource management and conservation, including the protection of dolphins and other marine mammals, is the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the MMPA was amended, resulting in an embargo on imports of tuna caught in association with dolphins in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) Ocean. It also led to the creation of a labeling law that defined "dolphin-safe" as tuna not caught in association with dolphins in the ETP, focusing exclusively on the method of fishing and disregarding whether dolphins were killed or seriously injured in the process.

As a result of the amendments to the MMPA, the U.S. and other fleets moved away from the ETP and began to use fish aggregating devices (FADs). In 1993, Mexico, the United States and other countries fishing in the ETP signed the La Jolla agreement, which established a schedule of dolphin mortality limits in order to reduce bycatch of dolphins in tuna purse seine fisheries in the ETP.

In response to growing concerns about the high levels of bycatch associated with FADs, the United States, Mexico and other nations negotiated and signed the Panama Declaration in 1995, under which the signatories committed to strengthen the protection of dolphins. The United States was required to:

  • Lift the embargo imposed under the MMPA (for tuna caught in compliance with the La Jolla  agreement)
  • Permit the sale of both "dolphin-safe" and non-dolphin safe tuna in the United States
  • Change the definition of "dolphin-safe" to refer to tuna harvested without dolphin mortality as opposed to tuna harvested without any encirclement of dolphins

In 1997, the U.S. Congress implemented its requirements under the Declaration of Panama by enacting the International Dolphin Conservation Program Act (IDCPA). The law, and the subsequent Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program (AIDCP), which came into effect in 1999, was hailed as a landmark in international fisheries management.

The new definition of "dolphin-safe" (called for under IDCPA) enacted by the U.S. Congress was ultimately blocked by the special interest group Earth Island Institute. As a result, the United States continues to use an outdated and inherently flawed "dolphin-safe" label. In 2009, having exhausted all the avenues available for resolving the problem through bilateral negotiations, Mexico takes the case to the World Trade Organization (WTO) arguing that the United States has failed to fulfill its obligations under multilateral agreements. See WTO Case for more information.

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