Last February, at a special Inter-Governmental Meeting of the InterAmerican Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), representatives of various governments adopted the Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program (see Whales Alive!, April 1998). Signed by ten nations, the Agreement has already been ratified by the United States, as it was based on legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in the summer of 1997.
According to a December 18th article in Fish Information Services, the Ecuadorian National Congress has now ratified the International Dolphin Conservation Agreement (IDCA), joining the Mexican legislature which had ratified the IDCA in November. In order for the Agreement to enter into force, four countries must ratify the text and deposit the instruments of such ratification with the U.S. State Department in Washington, DC.
In addition to Ecuador and Mexico, it appears that the Panamanian Congress has also moved closer to actual ratification of the IDCA. If such is the case, then it is more than likely that the new Dolphin Program will come into full effect within the first month of 1999.
While final data for the 1998 fishing year are still not available (some tuna vessels have trips that overlap into the new year), preliminary information from the staff of the IATTC indicate that the 1998 dolphin mortality figures for the Eastern Pacific Ocean (EPO) tuna purse seine fishery will be some 26% less than the mortality level in 1997. Given that the 1997 mortality figure stood at a little over 3,000 animals, that would yield a 1998 mortality figure of less than 2,300 dolphins.
In addition to the concerns with dolphin conservation, the new IDCA envisions that the InterAmerican Tropical Tuna Commission will undertake measures to reduce the by-catch of other non-target species caught in the tuna purse seine fishery, species such as sharks, billfish, sea turtles and even juvenile tunas. At its last meeting, the IATTC took another step towards implementation of such measures with passage of a resolution, "Resolution on Fish Aggregating Devices", which calls for, among other things, the limitation of the number of such aggregating devices, or FADs, that a purse seine vessel can carry on board.
FADs are basically artificial floating objects under which tunas tend to congregate; unfortunately, in addition to the large amounts of tuna that can be taken, such FADs also attract other fish, endangered sharks and sea turtles, along with pilot whales and other cetaceans. The IATTC will hold a special meeting of a Working Group on FADs in late January to try and develop a more in-depth approach to the issue.
According to the U.S. legislation passed in 1997, one of the possible outcomes of the implementation and entry into force of the new IDCA would be a change in the definition of dolphin safe labeling of tuna cans. The new definition of dolphin safe, would mean that "no dolphins were killed or seriously injured" in any set in the EPO purse seine tuna fishery. In addition to mandating 100% observer coverage for the EPO purse seine fleet, U.S. legislation also demanded that a tracking and verification program must be in place to monitor tuna caught in the EPO (see Whales Alive!, October 1998).
Most importantly, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce must determine whether or not "the intentional encirclement of dolphins with purse seine nets has a significant adverse effect on any depleted dolphin stock"; if the Secretary were to make such a finding then the label change could not take place and would continue to ban the use of a dolphin safe label for any tuna that involved a deliberate set of a net on dolphins.
The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), as Whales Alive! has reported in earlier issues, is undertaking both a series of abundance estimate surveys to determine the numbers of dolphins currently found on a species by species basis in the EPO and "stress studies". Dr. Bob Brownell of NMFS has indicated that there will be five specialists in dolphin necropsies placed on board Mexican purse seine tuna vessels to gather tissue samples from dead dolphins for laboratory analysis. In addition, the Peruvian government has authorized the entry of a U.S. research vessel into its national waters in order to conduct population studies of various dolphin species.
CSI, along with many other conservation organizations, has asked the U.S. government to review thoroughly the methodologies involved in the proposed stress studies in order to ensure that the studies are as scientifically valid as possible.
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