As Whales Alive! goes to press, a deadline is looming for Secretary of Commerce Daley regarding the definition of the dolphin-safe tuna label here in the United States. As required under U.S. law (see Whales Alive! January 1999), Secretary Daley must make a finding as to whether or not the act of encircling dolphins with tuna purse seine nets, as practiced in the Eastern Pacific Ocean (EPO), has had a significant detrimental impact on the dolphin populations of the EPO.
Just this past month, on March 22, 1999, the National Marine Fisheries Service released a study on abundance estimates for four populations of EPO dolphins. WA readers interested in reviewing this study can find the paper at one of the NMFS web sites, at http://swfsc.ucsd.edu. After obtaining the web page, simply click on the Marine Mammal section, and then enter the IDCPA page.
While Secretary Daley has not yet made his determination, in response to a massive consumer write-in campaign, the three largest US tuna processing companies (StarKist, BumbleBee and VanKamp's/Chicken of the Sea) have already informed the Secretary that no matter what his ultimate finding might be, they will not change their current usage of the dolphin safe label.
What this means is that the U.S. "Big Three" will not purchase any tuna caught that involves the deliberate encirclement of dolphins in purse seine nets. The proposed change to the U.S. legislation - which is dependent on Secretary Daley's decision - would mean that tuna could be labeled dolphin-safe, even if dolphins were encircled. The proposed change in label would indicate that no dolphins could be killed or seriously injured, but that purse seine nets could be set on dolphins.
Many organizations have expressed concern over the potential impacts that purse seining dolphins could have on populations of dolphins in the EPO. The current studies underway by NMFS are meant to analyze whether or not being chased by tuna boats and then encircled in nets causes stress that could be negatively affecting the potential for dolphin populations to recover from the decades of takes, that led to the death of some six million dolphins since the late 1950's.
Meanwhile, the IDCPA or International Dolphin Conservation Programme Agreement has entered into force, and affords those concerned with dolphin takes in the EPO a chance to encourage governments to abide by the language of the treaty, and actively bring dolphin deaths "to levels approaching zero", "with the goal of eliminating dolphin mortality". The next meeting of the IDCPA countries will take place in Ecuador in June, to coincide with the annual meeting of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC).
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