Mexico's tuna industry has been harmed by U.S. "dolphin-safe" labeling rules, the World Trade Organization ruled Tuesday, saying the country can seek retaliatory measures worth hundreds of millions of dollars after the yearslong dispute.
Mexico's economic damages from the labeling rules amounted to $163 million a year, a third of the $472.3 million it had asked for, the decision said. Mexico has previously said it planned to impose the sanctions on imports of U.S. high-fructose corn syrup.
The Mexican government issued a statement saying it would "immediately ask the WTO's Dispute Settlement Body for authorization to suspend benefits" and also begin an internal process of targeting imports from the United States.
Mexico's statement said its tuna industry meets "the highest international standards for the protection of dolphins and sustainability."
Mexican officials has insisted for years that U.S. laws discriminated against their tuna, and that other countries didn't face the same level of scrutiny and enforcement.
The complaint, which dates back to 2008, was sparked by U.S. rules insisting that any Mexican tuna sold in the U.S. must have a “dolphin-safe” guarantee, meaning that no dolphins were killed in the process of catching the tuna.
At the time, Mexico said it cut dolphin deaths to minimal levels but the U.S. continued to treat its fishing industry unfairly.
In 2013, the U.S. changed its rules, but the WTO said that Mexico was still being discriminated against, Reuters reported. The U.S. changed its rules again in 2016, expanding the tougher restrictions to all countries.
Tuesday's decision by the WTO is based on the U.S.'s 2013 "dolphin-safe" tuna labeling rule. The WTO is expected to issue its final report on the 2016 rule change in mid-May.
If the WTO decides the new changes no longer penalize Mexico's fishing industry, America’s southern neighbor would have to end its retaliations against the U.S., according to Reuters.
The U.S. Trade Representative's Office said it was "disappointed" by Tuesday's ruling.
"Regrettably, the WTO Arbitrator's decision does not take into account the United States' most recent dolphin-safe labeling updates and dramatically overstates the actual level of trade effects on sales of Mexican tuna caught by intentionally chasing and capturing dolphins in nets," the office said. "We will continue to monitor the situation and closely consult with Congress and stakeholders about next steps."
The decision comes amid already strained U.S.-Mexico relations. President Donald Trump has made repeated called to renegotiate the North America Free Trade Agreement, threatening to terminate the deal if his goals are not met in a rewrite.
Separately Tuesday, the Trump administration intensified a trade dispute with Canada, announcing plans to impose tariffs averaging 20 percent on imported softwood lumber.
NBC's Danielle Abreu contributed to this report.