Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. IX No. 1 - January 2000

Tuna/Dolphin: New Challenges and Changes

By Kate O'Connell, CSI Board

On December 22, 1999, the US government announced in the Federal Register that it is planning to implement changes in dolphin safe labelling of tuna products. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has designed a new logo that it proposes as an official mark, to comply with the terms of the International Dolphin Conservation Program Act (IDCPA), which became effective in US law on March 3,1999 (see earlier volumes of Whales Alive! for more details on the US legislation).

The proposed label differs in certain respects from what had been originally envisioned by NMFS. At first, the Fisheries Service had thought to use one of the already established commercial labels for dolphin-safe tuna (such as those that appear on cans of BumbleBee, StarKist or Chicken of the Sea tuna). It opted, however, to establish its own unique label that will carry the words "US Department of Commerce Dolphin Safe". The new label will be reflective of changes in the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act that were made by the IDCPA.

As opposed to the old law, which stated that no dolphins were to be encircled by tuna purse seine nets in order to be able to claim a dolphin safe label, the new US government label would mean that such nets can be set on dolphins, but that "no serious injury or mortality" of dolphins can be observed. If an observer on-board a tuna seiner in the Eastern Pacific Ocean does not report seeing any dolphin carcass, or any seriously wounded animals, then that tuna can be labelled dolphin safe.

Dolphin safe logo

One of the unique and perhaps unexpected aspects of the proposed US regulations of 22 December is that the new US govenment label would not be mandatory. According to NMFS, the DPCIA "does not mandate the use of the official mark nor does it prohibit the use of alternative marks." The ruling states that a requirement of the new label law is that if the "tuna product bears the official mark, it may not bear any other mark or label that refers to dolphins, porpoises or marine mammals." Further, the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act establishes certain standards for use of any dolphin safe logo, chief amongst which is the no mortality or injury requirement.

It had been anticipated that tuna companies would be precluded from using anything but the offical government logo. However, in light of the non-mandatory nature of the proposed ruling, it seems that those companies wanting to use their own dolphin safe labels can do so. The US big three tuna companies have already announced that for the moment at least they will be staying with the older definition of dolphin safe, in which no nets were used to encircle dolphins. It will be interesting to see how this new ruling will affect sales of tuna in the US. Obviously, consumer awareness and its impact on market demands will play a key role. It should be noted that the Eastern Pacific Ocean (EPO) continues to be the only large scale tuna purse seine fishery in the world with mandated 100% observer coverage. Tuna purchased from other oceans does not have that same guarantee.

In addition to development of the label itself, NMFS is required by law to assess the impacts of setting nets on dolphin populations in the EPO. Back in the spring of 1999, the US Secretary of Commerce made an initial ruling that it could not be shown that such fishing technology has had a direct negative effect on the dolphins in the EPO...despite findings that certain depleted species of dolphins had not recuperated as rapidly as would have been expected in light of the success of the IATTC program to limit dolphin mortality.

Currently, NMFS is seeking comments on development of a series of research programs that could hopefully determine what the impacts of setting purse seine nets around dolphins actually are. As Whales Alive! goes to press, the Southwest Fisheries Science Center of NMFS has circulated a report on the subject to conservation groups, requesting comments.

Also on the legislative front, although this time in Europe, the European Union has made dramatic changes to their laws governing the act of setting nets on marine mammals. In the early 1990s, the EU had strictly prohibited the use of nets to deliberately encircle dolphins in tuna purse seine fisheries. However, on December 16th, the Commission of the EU changed the law so that nets can be set on dolphins in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, pursuant to the IDCPA.

Interestingly, when the EU law prohibiting the use of nets on dolphins was first written, the justification was that EU vessels were not operating in the EPO. However, it was actually the case that several Spanish boats were fishing for tuna in EPO waters, and the first draft of the proposed change noted that at least five Spanish vessels had asked to be allowed to set nets on dolphins.

Unfortunately, the EU law change does not include any of the caveats in the US law referencing the possibility of potential negative impacts on dolphin populations, nor does it include a requirement to invest in alternative tuna fishing technologies that do not include setting nets on dolphins.

In the past few months, the EPO tuna fishery has faced a great many challenges, amongst them being a need to ensure healthy fisheries for tuna. Concerns about over-fishing led the InterAmerican Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) to propose several resolutions concerning the closure of various of the tuna fisheries in the region. On November 8th, 1999, the bigeye tuna fishery on floating objects (FADs, objects used by fishers to congregate tuna, which also affect other marine species such as sea turtles, billfish and even certain cetacean species) was closed by the IATTC for the remainder of the year. On the 24th of November, the IATTC announced a closure of the yellowfin tuna fishery in the IATTC's regulatory area. It is the yellowfin tuna with which dolphins in the EPO are mainly found.

The next meeting of the IATTC will take place in San Jose, Costa Rica during the last week in January, 2000. Needless to say, in light of the increasing concerns regarding overfishing, and its impacts on populations of both tuna and other marine species, the meeting will be a particularly important one, as it is geared towards discussions of fishing fleet size and capacity in the EPO. Given that an increased number of vessels will lead to a potential for increased sets on dolphins (and thus a potential for greater dolphin mortality), CSI remains concerned that the number of fishing boats operating in the EPO be limited to the greatest extent possible.

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