Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. X No. 4 - October 2001

Tuna/Dolphin Update

By Kate O'Connell, CSI Board

In the third week of June, the countries party to the Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program (AIDCP) met in El Salvador, looking at issues of compliance and management of the tuna fishery and dolphin conservation in the Eastern Pacific Ocean (EPO). While numerous resolutions were passed (see http://www.iattc.org/HomeENG.htm) during the meeting, the meeting focussed in large part on the issue of the dolphin safe label and the means of tracking tuna caught in the EPO and then processed and shipped worldwide.

As readers of Whales Alive! know, the dolphin safe label has been a matter of controversy for years, since the US tuna canners first announced in the early 1990's that they would affix a dolphin logo to each can of tuna, and stating that they would not purchase tuna "caught in association with dolphins". Subsequently, countries in addition to the US that engaged in fishing for tuna in the EPO promulgated first the La Jolla Agreement, then the Panama Declaration and then finally the AIDCP, a legally binding international instrument designed to manage and control the level of takes of dolphins in association with the tuna purse seine fleet.

The tuna industry has used the association between tuna and dolphins to fish in the EPO for over five decades, beginning with the US fleet, and stocks of certain dolphin species, namely spotted dolphins and spinner dolphins were depleted by high historical levels of mortality in tuna purse-seine nets. While the La Jolla, Panama and AIDCP provisions have dramatically reduced the mortality of dolphins in the eastern Pacific, from over 100,000 a year to under 2,000, there continues to be concern that the fishing methods used may be causing stress and having a negative impact on dolphin population recovery.

US legislation enshrining the AIDCP into law mandated that in response to these concerns that a series of research efforts be undertaken in order to assess the situation. From August through the end of September, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) used a research vessel, as well as chartered a tuna fishing boat to engage in its CHESS (CHase Encirclement Stress Studies) to repeatedly capture and release individual dolphins and to collect biological samples for evaluating stress levels.

The CHESS Research techniques for evaluating stress include: a) analyses of single and repeat blood samples, b) molecular analyses of chronic stress from skin samples, c) measurement of dolphin surface and body temperatures to investigate heat stress, d) satellite tagging and tracking, e) documentation of reproductive status and, if it occurs, cow/calf separation between successive chases, and f) behavior studies. If interested in an in-depth look at what the studies entailed, you can go to the NMFS web site at:


The dolphin safe label was analyzed in a major article on the canned tuna industry in a June issue of Consumer Reports, as well as on their web site; the article highlighted continuing problems with the label: "Some tuna-fishing operations can injure or kill dolphins. The dolphin safe logo indicates that those methods weren't used or that dolphins weren't harmed in the process. However, because independent verification of such claims - by observers who board fishing boats or make surprise visits to canneries to inspect captains' logs - is not universal, the logo is not an ironclad guarantee that the tuna in any given can was caught according to the standard."

In late August, the Mexican tuna industry announced that if the issue of the dolphin-safe definition could not be resolved so as to allow its tuna to be sold in the US with the dolphin safe logo, they would pull back from the AIDCP and no longer participate in the program's conservation and management regime. As Mexico is by far the largest of the tuna fleets operating in the EPO, such a prospect raises serious concerns, and places in jeopardy the viability of the AIDCP. It is to be hoped that the Mexican government and industry will continue to maintain observer coverage on board their vessels, and will also continue to provide information to the IATTC, as well as supporting the very compliance-related resolutions they helped to promulgate at the 2001 AIDCP annual meeting in El Salvador.

Most tuna consumed in the US and Europe comes from outside the EPO fishery, from fisheries which do not have an international observer program, or other conservation measures such as a Catch Documentation Scheme that would allow for the tracking of the tuna can back to a boat with independent observer coverage. The tuna dolphin issue is a highly complex one, and the best thing for concerned consumers to do is to continue to question the source of each can of tuna, and to lobby for both a precautionary approach to the dolphin safe label as well as for more universal management measures for a tuna industry that is one of the most global food processing industries, a multi-billion dollar industry that sources its product from all oceans, and with processing plants in dozens of different countries.

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