WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of U.S. Democratic lawmakers on Thursday urged President Barack Obama to threaten Mexico with cuts in economic assistance if the southern neighbor continues to pursue a trade case that has put U.S. "dolphin-safe" tuna labels at risk.
"We urge your administration to make clear the U.S. will not water down or eliminate the very successful dolphin-safe labeling region," the lawmakers said in a letter to Obama.
"If the Mexican government continues to pursue WTO action in this case, we ask that your administration reconsider the level of economic assistance Mexico receives from U.S. taxpayers."
The lawmakers included Representative Edward Markey, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, and Representative Howard Berman, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Mexico will get about $33 million in U.S. development assistance this year and has received nearly $200 million since 1999, which should be enough to compensate for "any hardship that the Mexican government claims to be experiencing from its inability to comply with perfectly reasonable dolphin-safe requirements," the lawmakers said.
A World Trade Organization appellate panel ruled earlier this month that U.S. guidelines for dolphin-safe labels on tuna unfairly discriminate against Mexico, raising the possibility of Mexico slapping punitive duties on U.S. goods if the measures are not changed to conform with WTO rules.
The case centered on the U.S. definition of dolphin-safe tuna, which requires the tuna are caught without using huge "purse seine" nets to encircle dolphins, a technique used by Mexican fishing boats in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, where dolphins and tuna often swim together.
"Thanks to this program, dolphin deaths in the tuna industry have been reduced by a remarkable 98 percent since 1990," the lawmakers said.
However, the WTO appellate panel said it believed other tuna fishing techniques used in other parts of the ocean could be just as risky for dolphins, and that the U.S. dolphin-safe label rules failed to address that.
The U.S. lawmakers called the WTO decision "absurd" because it would require the United States "to enforce requirements in other tuna fisheries outside the Eastern Tropical Pacific that are not needed, since dolphins practically never associate with tuna schools in these other areas."
(Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by Dan Grebler)