Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VII No. 2 April 1998

Tuna/Dolphin Update

by Kate O'Connell, CSI Board

After years of heated debate, the tuna fishing nations operating in the Eastern Pacific Ocean (EPO) finally concluded a completed text of an Agreement for the International Dolphin Conservation Program. Representatives from more than a dozen nations and the European Union met in La Jolla, California throughout the first week of February to discuss the text of the Agreement. The discussions, often tense, were in many ways historic, as the meeting remained open to participation by members of the environmental community; environmental NGOs had open access to lobby their positions, either for or against the Agreement, and all took advantage of this situation. At a time when other fora are trying to shut off public participation (see "Whales Alive!" articles on the 1997 CITES and IWC meetings), the decision made by the member and observer governments of the InterAmerican Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) to keep the discussions open to a democratic and transparent process should be recognised, and applauded.

In the last issue of Whales Alive!, it was pointed out that one of the key concerns the environmental community had with the proposed Agreement was the necessity to ensure a continued reduction in dolphin deaths in the EPO. While the success of the IATTC program to date has been phenomenal - dolphin deaths dropped from over 100,000 animals per year in 1989 to less than 3000 in 1997 - conservation organisations, among them CSI, wanted to be assured that any formal Agreement would guarantee that dolphin deaths would be ratcheted down. This concern was juxtaposed against the views of those nations fishing in the EPO which feared that if the numbers came down too low on the dolphin mortality system, they would lose the ability to fish in the region. To try and meet the tuna nations' concern, the meeting developed a complicated new system of DMLs (dolphin mortality limits) that is quite different from the current DML system.

Unfortunately, the highly complex nature of the newly proposed and agreed upon DML system means that it is hard to predict what effect the new system will have on the overall numbers of dolphin deaths in the fishery. Whereas in the past a captain had a clearly defined number, or cap, to avoid reaching, the new system - which fell short of a guaranteed reduction in dolphin deaths according to a set timetable as is currently the practice - provides a means by which an individual vessel can augment their DML, and thus continue fishing beyond their quota. The effects that this will have on captain and vessel behavior is unknown, and will need to be closely monitored. The program must continue to reduce dolphin deaths, or it will face severe criticism from the environmental community.

A series of "firewalls" were set up in the new system, that does make it virtually impossible for a truly bad captain to increase his DML; for example any captain using explosives, or sundown sets, would not be eligible for an increased DML. One of the highlights of the new Agreement is that governments must respond to the IATTC's International Review Panel (IRP) within a six month period regarding these and other infractions, the first time that such a strong "report-back" mechanism has been included in the operations of the International Dolphin Conservation Program. In the past, some nations have gone years without responding to the IRP on instances of abuse, and actions taken. A further safety feature of the Agreement is a proviso that if dolphin deaths do begin to rise in an alarming rate under the new system as compared to previous years, the IRP will recommend that the Commission conduct a study into the increased mortality rate, in order to address the problem.

The new Agreement maintained the goal of "eliminating dolphin mortality", the first time that such a goal has been recognised by an international fisheries regime. In addition, a prohibition was put in place for vessels under 400 tons, precluding them from being able to set nets on dolphins. The next step is for governments to take the Agreement home, and to implement its language into their own national legislation, in order for the provisions of the Agreement to become truly binding.

Further, the nations must ensure that the provisions of the Agreement are fully enforced, and do not simply become a paper tiger. Any sign that dolphin deaths in the EPO are rising, or that infractions are going unsanctioned, and the nations fishing in the Eastern Pacific for yellowfin tuna must expect that there will be a loud public outcry. And while this Agreement may open the US market to tuna coming in from those nations up until now embargoed, the right to put a dolphin safe label on this tuna has yet to be given. Over the course of the next year, as reported in earlier editions of Whales Alive!, the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will be conducting research into the effects of setting nets on dolphins. Until NMFS gives a green light, and says that encirclement of dolphins by tuna nets does not constitute a physical threat to these animals, then the dolphin safe label stays as currently defined.

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