For the Mexican tuna industry, the threat of U.S. trade barriers is nothing new.
In fact, the industry has been in bumping heads with Uncle Sam on the issue of labeling for the last 20 years.
And while after a barrage of appeals and counter-appeals, the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2015 finally ruled definitely that the U.S. requirement that labels declaring the tuna to be “dolphin-safe” was unfair to Mexican fishermen because they received “less favorable treatment” since the regulations set different requirements based on where a fish is caught, the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) responded last year by announcing tougher rules for all tuna fisheries worldwide.
That essentially constituted a way for Washington to get-around the WTO ruling.
In other words, it was back to square one in the tuna wars.
Ostensibly, the NOAA restrictions are intended to protect dolphins, which often swim with schools of yellowfin tuna in the eastern tropical Pacific, where most of Mexico’s tuna fleets operate.
In the past, fishermen would use speedboats to herd the fish (and, by extension, dolphins) into large nets.
That practice led to the senseless slaughter of thousands of the aquatic mammals, which in turn, led to a change in international conservation standards to protect dolphins.
Mexico complied with the regulations and the incidences of dolphin deaths plummeted dramatically.
But there was a double-standard as to how the new rules were implemented.
While most fishing fleets in the world were allowed to monitor their own dolphin-protecting practices, Mexican fishermen were subjected to a Kafkian labyrinth of red tape and paperwork.
This unfair bias against Mexican fishermen basically translated into yet another manifestation of the ban against Mexican tuna in the United States.
But if trying to get and maintain a foothold in the U.S. market seemed like an interminable Catch-22 nightmare for Mexican producers, it didn’t discourage Pinsa Comercial, the country’s largest tuna fishery, producing more than 100,000 tons of the fish each year.
“When the ban first went into effect two decades ago, it did initially affect our bottom line,” said Alfonso J. Vázquez, during a recent media presentation of the company’s new Dolores Premium frozen tuna medallions.
“But we were not discouraged. Instead, we decided to switch tactics and change gears, focusing on the national market.”
That strategy paid off well for Pinsa, which also produces canned tuna, breaded tuna nuggets, tuna burgers and tuna sausages.
Today, the company occupies 60 percent of the Mexican market, and represents about 5 percent of the nation’s entire food sector.
And about 98 percent of the more than 700 million cans and 8,000 tons of frozen tuna Pinsa produces each year are sold and consumed nationally.
Vázquez, who stressed that his company does everything it can to protect dolphins, did not dwell on the fact that the ongoing (albeit repackaged) prohibition against Mexican tuna has cut his company out of the U.S. market, which imports an estimated $680 million a year in canned tuna.
Mexico still has about a 3.5 percent stake in that market, but the main sources of U.S. canned tuna imports come from Thailand, Vietnam, Mauritius, Canada, Ecuador, Fiji, China and Indonesia, according to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries data.
But the real target for Pinsa — and most other Mexican tuna fisheries — is the home market, Vázquez said.
And with a population of 130 million, the Pinsa director said that other companies that might be squeezed out of the U.S. market if a trade war between the United States and Mexico explodes into full throttle blitz should heed Pinsa’s cautionary tale.
“It really is a matter of turning setbacks into opportunities,” he said.
“Today, we are doing great, and in the last couple years, Pinsa has invested $30 million in new ships and a new canning and freezing plant at the port of Guaymas, Sonora.”
With 20 tuna boats, Pinsa already boasts the largest commercial fleet in Latin America, and the group is now looking to enter the sardine market (which, by the way, is not blocked to Mexican producers in the United States).
Pinsa has repenned that old saying of “think global, buy local,” and it seems to be working just fine for the Mexican tuna giant.
Other Mexican companies should take note.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]