Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VI No. 3 July 1997


Dolphin-Safe Tuna...where do we go from here?

by Kate O'Connell, CSI Board


Since 1990, American consumers have been purchasing tuna labelled as dolphin safe, supposedly secure in the knowledge that such a label meant that no dolphin mortalities were involved in the production of the tuna canned inside. From the late 1950s until the late 1980s, millions of dolphins died in purse seine tuna nets in the Eastern Pacific Ocean (EPO).

It was US fishermen who first began this dolphin-deadly practice, and who were responsible for the majority of dolphin deaths in the EPO. In the 1970s, however, foreign fleets, especially from Latin America, also began the practice of setting their nets around dolphins in the EPO. In the 1980s, an El Niño event occurred in the Eastern Pacific, warming the ocean temperatures, and causing a shift in tuna fishing effort from the eastern to the western Pacific. Much of the US fleet moved west, and the majority of the EPO tuna fleet left in the area was flagged by foreign vessels, such as Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Vanuatu.

It was in the 1970s and 1980s that groups such as Greenpeace and Earth Island Institute began to publicize the dolphin deadly practices of the EPO tuna fleets. A video by Sam LaBudde, taken while working undercover on board a Panamanian tuna vessel, shocked the world with its graphic footage of dolphins dying. Public pressure campaigns caused changes in US legislation that meant that foreign nations faced embargoes of their tuna products if they did not abide by US regulated levels of dolphin mortality.

The embargoes were put in place based on the assumption that the US market, being the largest in the world, would be able to be used as an incentive to have the EPO fishing fleets convert to dolphin safe fishing practices. The embargoes certainly did bring about increased awareness of the level of dolphin deaths in the EPO, and in 1992 the nations that fish for yellowfin tuna in the EPO created the La Jolla Agreement, with the objective of "eliminating dolphin mortality while at the same time ensuring the take of large yellowfin tuna".

The La Jolla Agreement was the first time that a fisheries organization (in this case the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission - IATTC) recognized the need to deal with the issue of marine mammal deaths in a fishery. The Agreement called for a ratchet down level of dolphin deaths, with the goal of getting to under 5,000 deaths by the year 2000.

The La Jolla Agreement program (which involves 100% observer coverage, captain and crew training in dolphin release techniques, data collection on dolphin biology and bycatch) met with such success, that the goal of under 5,000 dolphin deaths was reached seven years ahead of schedule. From a level of some 100,000 dolphin deaths per year in the late 1980s, the mortality for 1996 was less than 2,700.

Since 1990, most of the nations fishing in the EPO for yellowfin tuna have been unable to sell their yellowfin, purse seine caught tuna in US markets. Given the success of the La Jolla Agreement program, the foreign governments felt that the embargoes should be lifted, and their yellowfin tuna sold in the United States market. As a result, in October of 1995, the nations of the EPO fleet, along with the US, Spain, and France negotiated an international agreement known as the Panama Declaration. In exchange for "institutionalizing" the La Jolla Agreement, and making La Jolla binding under international law, the US would lift the embargoes AND change the definition of the dolphin safe label as it currently stands.

Since the drafting of the Panama Declaration in 1995, there have been several attempts to change US law such that the US market would open for sale to yellowfin tuna caught in the EPO by foreign nations. There was also an attempt to change the dolphin safe label via legislation, such that the label meant only no mortality of dolphins rather than the previous definition that had no setting of nets on dolphins allowed.

The most recent permutation of the legislative efforts to re-open the US market to yellowfin tuna caught by the nations fishing in the Eastern Pacific took place in mid-June during Senate committee meetings to discuss the "mark-up" (drafting) of the bill S39. The House of Representatives had, a few weeks earlier, passed a bill that would accept the Panama Declaration.

Senator Olympia Snow of Maine proposed changes to the House version of the bill such that the "new definition" of dolphin safe tuna include serious injury as well as just mortality, and that it would also mandate that a study of the effects of setting nets on dolphins be undertaken. The embargoes on all foreign tuna would be lifted, but if the study shows that encirclement does cause harm to dolphin populations, the practice of encircling dolphins should stop, and any nation failing to do so would be embargoed yet again.

When we buy a can of tuna in the US, we (or at least I!) would assume that it means an absolute guarantee that no dolphins died to produce that tuna, nor were the dolphins seriously harmed or harassed. The way the current US legislation is written, however, and the way the embargoes have been implemented, is directly linked to yellowfin tuna purse seine fishing in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. And that tuna provides less than 20% of the tuna coming into the US market. So what of the remaining 80%± of tuna?

All other oceans are assumed to be "safe" for dolphins and as such any kind of tuna from any country other than the embargoed countries can come in to the US for sale. And tuna products other than yellowfin can and do come into the US markets from yellowfin embargoed tuna nations such as Mexico and Colombia. For example, StarKist, the first of the US canners to pursue a "dolphin safe" policy, bought Colombian tuna throughout 1996, even though Colombian yellowfin tuna is embargoed.

While US legislation definitely made the world a better place for dolphins, it is arguable that much more needs to be done, beyond the scope of all legislative alternatives currently before the US Congress. As consumers, we constantly need to push the industry to higher standards of responsible fishing practices. Any proposed change to US legislation must go beyond the current emphasis on the Eastern Pacific, and include industrialized tuna fishing practices in all oceans of the world.

The only fishery in the world with 100% observer coverage (and thus 100% certainty that no dolphins died or were injured) is the fishing fleet in the EPO. The South Pacific, for example, has only about 20% coverage on all fishing trips. Other fisheries have observer programs, but to nowhere near the extent or scope of that modeled by the La Jolla Agreement. Enough evidence exists that does show that dolphins die in other fisheries in other oceans, and not just in the EPO yellowfin tuna fishery. Mandated observer coverage is the only way that a consumer can have a 100% guarantee a dolphin safe label means what it intends.

Tuna as a global commodity needs intense regulation and monitoring. And whereas the US market for canned tuna, once the largest in the world, now represents only about 22% of canned tuna sales, it is shortsighted to take only a US centered approach. Europe, now the largest market for canned tuna sales in the world, has no legislation in place regarding dolphin safe labeling. The scheme there is purely a voluntary one, used, according to the European Parliament as "purely a marketing tool".

Concerned consumers of tuna worldwide need to question the tuna industry on several different points. Does the industry support research into alternative fishing technologies that do not involve the setting of nets on dolphins? Does the company only buy tuna from a boat that carries a certified observer on board, and does that observer state that no dolphins were injured, killed or harmed during the fishing operation? Does the industry have observers on board all their supply boats in all oceans?

Further, we need to ask the industry if it has actively promoted and lobbied for an elimination of dolphin deaths in all industrialized tuna fisheries (not just the EPO). Another critical aspect is that the industry (along the lines of the polluter pays principle) must be willing to incur the costs of such monitoring and observation. The La Jolla Agreement actually forces the tuna industry to pay for some (but still not all) of the costs of observer coverage... some $12 a ton of boat carrying capacity. And such funding should be handled via an intensely regulated, yet transparent intergovernmental scheme. Information on boat behavior and dolphin mortality can and should be readily accessible to the public so that informed consumer choices can be made.

So, call StarKist and BumbleBee. Or if you are an overseas member, call your local tuna brand name company and ask the above questions. And let us know what you find out. Don't just assume a dolphin safe label is a good thing... demand that it is guaranteed to be so.


Go to next article: Amazon River Dolphins in Texas? or: Table of Contents.

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