THE on-again, off-again United States embargo on Mexican tuna is back on. And to officials in Mexico, it still has the stench of protectionism. ``In accordance with international law, no country has the right to impose their own criteria on others, much less apply sanctions,'' says Fernando Solana, Mexico's Secretary of Foreign Relations.
The embargo stems from the US Marine Mammal Protection Act, which forbids US and overseas fisherman from selling tuna in the US if they kill more than a diminishing quota of dolphins in the process. Mexico is the only nation exceeding the quota, according to US figures.
The embargo was reinstated by the US Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Feb. 20. The US Department of Commerce lost its appeal of an earlier court decision requiring the ban last year.
The US sanctions are an embarrassment to the Bush administration which is trying to get congressional approval for ``fast track'' negotiations on a US-Canada-Mexico free-trade pact.
Several prominent Mexican politicians and business leaders are irked by what they see as a ploy to protect US market share by forcing a poor, developing nation to meet unreasonably high ecological standards. They want this dispute and the issue of environmental trade barriers on the table in the free-trade talks.
``This is a particularly severe warning for the free-trade agreement negotiators [of the loopholes to watch out for],'' says Hermenegildo Anguianos, a congressman belonging to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI.
But a spokesman for President Carlos Salinas de Gortari says the official position is that disagreement on the tuna issue should be handled outside the free-trade talks.
Both Salinas and Bush administration officials agree that standards for protecting dolphins should be set in international forums, as has been done with whales. But unless US law is changed by Congress, US State Department officials say the embargo is likely to stand.
Initially, the ban will have little economic effect on Mexico. Sales to the US now only account for about 3 percent of Mexican tuna exports. Most tuna is sold to Europe and Japan.
But on April 20, a secondary embargo will go into effect that could significantly curtail the volume and prices of Mexican tuna exports. The US, which is the largest consumer market for tuna, will extend the ban to all countries that buy Mexican tuna to can it and reexport it to the US.
``We have nothing against Mexico. It just has to stop killing dolphins,'' says Joshua Floum, attorney for Earth Island Institute, a San Francisco-based ecology group.
Mexico reduced its dolphin kill by 67.5 percent between 1986 and 1990, according to a study by the Mexican Fishery Secretariat. The study notes that the US tuna fishing industry was permitted 15 years to make the same reduction.
``The writing is on the wall,'' Mr. Floum says. ``Markets are closing around the world to `dolphin unsafe' tuna.'' Last April, the three largest US tuna canners - H.J. Heinz Co., Van Camp Seafood Co., and Bumble Bee Seafoods - agreed to sell only ``dolphinsafe'' tuna.