Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. IV No. 4 October 1995


The Tuna/Dolphin Situation Heats Up

By Kate O'Connell, CSI Board

In early August, several Congressmen, led by Representative Randy Cunningham of California, introduced a bill designed to dramatically change the laws governing the tuna/dolphin situation in the Eastern Pacific Ocean (EPO). Cunningham's Bill, number 2179, would severely weaken controls on the take of dolphins by tuna purse-seiners in the EPO, and allow tuna into the United States that involves dolphin mortality. The "dolphin safe" canned tuna label, under the terms of the new legislation, would effectively cease to exist. It would also allow US and foreign fishermen to kill dolphins in the EPO at unacceptably high rates.

The American public has been deeply concerned about this issue, since it came to light that dolphins and tuna swim together - for reasons still not understood - and that fishermen were netting the dolphins to catch the tuna with which they interacted. Millions of dolphins died in purse seine nets over the course of decades, until public outcry led to stricter regulations on releasing the dolphins from the nets.

One of the cornerstones for the Cunningham legislation would be the application of what is known as PBR (Potential Biological Removal) rates to the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Under current proposals in US law, the new Marine Mammal Protection Act regulations would allow US fishermen to take a certain percentage of a marine mammal population, and gradually reduce the kill rates over time. Several environmental groups, including CSI, fought against this, as kills of threatened and depleted species would be allowed, and in light of the fact that elimination of mortality is never called for.

Up until now, the tuna fisheries of the EPO have not been included under this new PBR regime. Cunningham's bill represents a major step backwards for dolphin conservation in the Eastern Pacific, as it would allow levels of dolphin kill up to ten times greater than the current actual kill rate.

The tuna fishery in the EPO is managed by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC). Once a major player, the US fleet in the EPO has dwindled to only a few boats. Mexico, Venezuela, Vanuatu and Colombia are now the biggest fleets operating in EPO waters. In 1992, the nations fishing in the EPO signed the La Jolla Agreement, which called for "reducing the take of dolphins to levels approaching zero" and "searching for alternative means of catching large yellowfin tuna that do not involve encircling dolphins, with a goal of eliminating dolphin mortality in this fishery."

The Agreement also established a schedule of allowed dolphin mortality, beginning in 1993 with 19,500, and working down to under 5,000 by 1999.

The program placed observers on all large tuna purse seiners, and trained captains and crew in the techniques of releasing dolphins from the net. Surprisingly, the program has been much more successful than anticipated; in 1993, the actual mortality was roughly 3600 dolphins, and for last year, the take was 4095 dolphins. Current estimates for 1995 put the mortality figures along the lines of 1993.

While many aspects of the La Jolla Agreement are laudable, the Agreement itself has not been recognized in any way in international law. Further, the Agreement only covers the period up to 1995, and makes no movement towards reaching the goal of eliminating mortality. Little progress has been made in establishing a strong, functional Scientific Advisory group.

It is urgent that all citizens contact their Congresspeople and the President and ask them to fight against the proposed Cunningham Bill 2179. Ask your senator or representative to instead support legislation that would (1) demand that the nations that have signed the original La Jolla Agreement recognize the Agreement in international law, and become members of the IATTC; (2) rewrite the mortality schedule so that it works down from a cap of no more than 5,000, and gets to zero within a defined short time period; (3) lift embargoes on yellowfin tuna for Mexico, Colombia, Vanuatu and Venezuela if and only if those nations agree to the above two conditions; and (4) increase research money going into the fishery that could be used to try and break the dolphin/tuna bond or create new gears and technologies that would lower dolphin kill rates.

As to the Dolphin Safe label, the American consumer should become a critical buyer. The EPO tuna fishery is the only fishery in the world today where observers go out on every vessel. Tuna caught in any other part of the world does not have that same safeguard, yet it is given an automatic dolphin safe label. You should begin to question the major tuna companies about why there are no observers in other oceans, when anecdotal evidence does exist to indicate that dolphins are dying in fisheries outside of the EPO.

In addition, no major tuna canner, with the exception of Bumblebee, has ever given money to the IATTC to fund research into improved gear technologies and alternatives to setting nets on dolphins. If the tuna industry wants to get a dolphin safe stamp of approval they should prove where that tuna came from, how it was caught, and guarantee that no dolphins died to produce that can. The only way to do this is to establish an observer program along the lines of the IATTC for every ocean of the world.

We ask our readers to write to:

Honorable ______________ (your Congressperson)
House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

President Bill Clinton
The White House
Washington, DC 20500
or email: president@whitehouse.gov

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© Copyright 1995, Cetacean Society International, Inc.