New standards recently adopted allow the "dolphin-safe" label on tuna caught with huge encircling nets, as long as no dolphins were killed or severely injured in the process. While some critics say the new policy weakens the standards, supporters, including Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, and the Center for Marine Conservation claim the change will actually help international efforts to protect dolphin and other marine life.
Here's why: In the Eastern Pacific Tropical Ocean, yellowfin tuna tend to congregate under dolphins. Using a fishing method called encirclement, fishermen would follow a school of dolphins, cast a net and haul in the tuna below. However, in the process, hundreds of thousands of dolphin were killed each year, drowning after entanglement in the nets or crushed as the boats winched them in.
In response to consumer outcry in 1989 over the high mortality rates of dolphin entangled in encircling nets, Congress passed the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act in 1990 and the International Dolphin Conservation Act in 1992. According to these laws, tuna caught in the Eastern Pacific Ocean was considered "dolphin-safe" if an observer certified that no dolphins were deliberately encircled.
In 1992, ten countries that fish for yellowfin tuna in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, including the US and Mexico, set up a voluntary international dolphin protection program known as the La Jolla Agreement.
Establishing for the first time international limits on dolphin mortality, the goal of decreasing dolphin deaths to under 5000 by the year 2000 was set. The program involved 100% observer coverage, captain and crew training in dolphin release techniques, and data collection on dolphin biology and by-catch. So successful was the program that dolphin mortality went from 100,000 deaths per year in the late 1980s to less than 2,700 in 1996.
Foreign countries who supported the La Jolla Agreement believed their successful actions warranted the US lifting the embargo against their tuna. As a result, in 1995, eleven nations, including the United States, negotiated another international agreement, the Panama Declaration.
This agreement called on the United States to lift the embargoes on tuna from the Eastern Pacific Ocean for those countries participating in the agreement and to change the definition of the "dolphin-safe" label to include tuna caught in encircling nets that resulted in zero mortality of dolphins in the process.
In contrast, the "dolphin-safe" definition at the time meant only that no encircling nets were used to catch the tuna in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Fishermen who caught tuna with other methods—or in other areas of the world—but killed dolphin in the process were still allowed to use the "dolphin-safe" label.
In 1997, Congress made the new definition called for in the Panama Declaration legally binding by passing the International Dolphin Conservation Program Act. It officially rescinded the import embargo on tuna caught by encircling nets and required an observer from an international oversight group to accompany every tuna boat using encircling nets.
The Commerce Department was then directed to re-define the "dolphin-safe" label by spring 1999 based on studies to be done on the status of dolphin populations and the effect of stress due to encirclement. Also, under the law, the National Marine Fisheries Service was required to pursue further studies and make another review in 2002 on whether the use of large encircling nets to catch tuna causes "significant adverse impact" on dolphin that swim with tuna.
It's an example of how cooperation and market incentive can create a "win," both for the marine environment as well as consumers. Thanks to the new legal standard that "dolphin-safe" means no dolphins have been killed or seriously injured—no matter what method of tuna capture—dolphins will be given increased opportunity to thrive and increase their populations.
And, finally, consumers can be assured that what they think they are buying with "dolphin-safe" tuna, truly means that no dolphins have been harmed in the process.
Written by: Margaret Wittenberg
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