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U.S. Changes Meaning of Dolphin Safe Tuna Label

By Cat Lazaroff

January 6, 2003 (ENS)

The Bush administration has decided that a controversial fishing method involving encircling pods of dolphins with mile long nets to catch tuna has "no significant adverse impact" on the dolphins. Conservation groups say the determination, which will allow tuna from Mexico to be sold in the U.S. under a "dolphin safe" label, could spell disaster for imperiled dolphin populations.

On December 31, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced that after new research, it had concluded that the tuna purse seine industry practice of encircling dolphins to catch tuna has "no significant adverse impact on dolphin populations in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean." The announcement came less than a month after a conservation group released an unpublished NMFS report indicating that thousands of dolphins, particularly baby dolphins, are still dying in tuna nets in the eastern tropical Pacific.

The Commerce Department's Dolphin Safe
tuna label. (Logo courtesy NMFS)

The New Year's Eve finding cleared the way for
tuna caught under the terms of a binding
multilateral environmental agreement, particularly
in waters off the coast of Mexico, to be imported
into the United States with the dolphin safe label,
so long as no dolphins are injured or killed during
the set in which the tuna are caught.

"One of our main goals is to reduce dolphin deaths and
to conserve living marine resources, while at the same
time maintaining the sustainability of the Eastern
Tropical Pacific tuna fishery under the international
agreement," said NMFS director Bill Hogarth.
"This agreement has reduced dolphin mortality from
hundreds of thousands of dolphins to
approximately 2,000 dolphins per year."

In 1991, NMFS implemented the "dolphin safe" labeling system as a way of reducing dolphin deaths due to tuna fishing. Under the initial label criteria, tuna harvested in the Eastern Tropical Pacific could be labeled "dolphin safe" only if no nets were intentionally set on dolphins during the fishing trip.

Under the December 31 decision, the criteria have been changed so that tuna harvested in the Eastern Tropical Pacific by large purse seine vessels can be labeled dolphin safe even if dolphins are encircled, so long as an on board observer certifies that no dolphins are killed or seriously injured during the set in which the tuna were caught.

NMFS Director Bill Hogarth during a wetlands

restoration day in Baltimore Harbor, Maryland.

(Photo by Bill Folsom, courtesy NMFS)

"The dolphin safe label was developed as a way to help protect and conserve dolphins," said Hogarth. "With this decision, Americans can continue to have confidence that when they purchase tuna with the dolphin safe label that dolphins are being protected."
But conservation groups warn that the relaxed requirements for dolphin safe labeling could lead to the deaths of thousands more dolphins each year.

"The whole point of the 'dolphin safe' label is to give consumers a choice of tuna that wasn't caught by netting dolphins," said William Snape, vice president for law and litigation at Defenders of Wildlife, one of several groups planning to challenge the NMFS decision in court. "We have great confidence that the courts will strike down this blatantly illegal decision," Snape added.

In the 1950s, fishers discovered that yellowfin tuna in the Eastern Tropical Pacific could be found beneath schools of dolphin. For years after the discovery, the predominant tuna fishing methods in the region involved encircling schools of dolphins with fishing nets to trap the tuna concentrated below.

Hundreds of thousands of dolphins died because of this fishing method. Under the International Dolphin Conservation Program (IDCP), fishers were required to change their purse seine fishing methods, and since the 1980s, confirmed dolphin mortalities have dropped to about 2,000 per year.

Dolphins caught in tuna nets. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)

Critics of tuna fishing in the Eastern Tropical Pacific say the actual number of dolphins harmed is probably much higher. A 96 page report by NMFS scientists, made public last month, found that the fishing methods favored by commercial tuna fisheries in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and other nations may stress dolphins, even when they are not caught in nets, or when they are released from nets alive.
Many of the region's tuna fishers chase down schools of dolphins in order to target the tuna on which the dolphins feed, than encircle the tuna with nets that can also ensnare dolphins. At least six to 10 percent of eastern spinner dolphin mortality, and 10 to 15 percent of northeastern offshore spotted dolphin mortality, is caused by the separation of baby dolphins from their mothers during the chasing and netting process, the report found.