The net effect of Mexico's fishy business

Mexico's president-elect, Vicente Fox, faces many trading irritants with US when he takes office Friday.

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Watch out! That tuna sandwich you're chewing on may contain a bone of contention.

US environmental groups are alleging that Mexican tuna that may have been caught using methods that kill dolphins is illegally on US store shelves. The accusations have reignited a 10-year conflict between the United States and Mexico over so-called "dolphin-safe" tuna.

Just days before Mexico's president-elect Vicente Fox takes office espousing lofty ideas of North American integration, the tuna brouhaha is one example of the kind of more mundane trade conflicts new administrations on both sides of the US-Mexico border will face.

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While Mexican tuna fishermen fume over their restricted access to the big US market, their sugar-farming compatriots are on strike, protesting the rising quantities of yellow-corn fructose being imported from the US and used in the soft-drink industry, their biggest customer. At the same time, they insist, Mexican sugar exports to the US are being restricted in violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Add to that the continuing dispute over NAFTA's intended opening up of cross-border truck transportation, and a simmering telecommunications conflict, and a picture emerges of US-Mexico relations where trade tensions continue to demand more attention than Mr. Fox might have envisioned.

The incoming president, who takes office Friday, says the US-Mexico commercial partnership is bigger than cans of tuna. "A relationship totalling $180 billion [a year] in the interchange of goods can't be adversely affected by four conflictive areas," Fox told foreign journalists last week. "They are important sectors, but they don't put at risk the gigantic US-Mexico relationship."

Fox has named to his cabinet leaders with heavy private-sector backgrounds that are unusual for Mexico. That has led most observers to conclude that Fox will follow the path blazed by the past two governments in encouraging global trade relations and openness to foreign investment.

But a question mark has been raised by his naming of academic Jorge Castaneda as his foreign minister. Mr. Castaneda opposed Mexico's entry into NAFTA. But some analysts say the fact that Mexico now also has entered a free-trade agreement with the European Union means Mexico can develop better-balanced economic relations.

Castaneda, insisting NAFTA was not a document set in stone when it took effect in 1994, says Mexico will insist on a revision that takes up the labor and environmental issues that were not included in the original accord.

While the tuna issue may pale compared to such global issues, it clearly is big enough for US environmentalists - and Mexican fishermen.

San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute (EII) reported last week that cans of "Dolores" brand tuna have been found in markets in California and Illinois, despite the fact that the Mexican canner has a history of what the green group called "not-so-dolphin-friendly" tuna-fishing practices. The discovered cans carried an "amigo del delfin" ("dolphin friendly") label, even though US federal law prohibits the use of the label for tuna caught by large nets that kill thousands of dolphins annually.

In publicizing its tuna-can catch, EII claimed that the cannery "is responsible for more dolphin deaths than any other cannery in the world." EII said it had sent its findings to the Federal Trade Commission, responsible for enforcing dolphin-safe tuna standards.

With the US trade deficit with Mexico surging in September to a one-month record of $2.7 billion, the US believes Mexico has little room to complain. But Mexican officials and producers say their No.1 trading partner, the US - which accounts for more than 85 percent of Mexico's exports - either interprets trade accords to its favor or simply disregards provisions.

For Mexico, the tuna dispute is a prime example of how "green" standards can become unfair trade restrictions. According to the president of Mexico Chamber of the National Fishing Industry, Alfonso Rosignol, the "dolphin safe" program has simply served to keep Mexican tuna out of the US, while not really regulating the US industry. The chamber is pushing for at least a partial suspension of an 1997 US-Mexico agreement to allow proven dolphin-safe Mexican tuna to enter the country.

US environmentalists have criticized that agreement as a cave-in to commercial pressures.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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