The following article first appeared in the April 1996 issue of Trumpet Call, newsletter of the Alliance for America, and is reproduced with the author's permission. At the time of writing, she was co-director of the San Diego-based Fishermen's Coalition. In 1998, she left to become executive director of Fur Commission USA.
A Tuna Tale: Managing a Fishery to Increase Positives, Reduce Negatives
WHETHER ON LAND OR ON SEA, animals are present in all food harvesting operations. A farmer looking through the fields before harvesting his crop sees rabbits, opossums, mice, rats, birds, foxes, skunks and snakes. These animals flee as the combines come through the fields but there is accidental and unavoidable mortality.
The ocean is no different. As farmers of the sea, fishermen use various equipment designed to harvest specific fish. Non-targeted animals flee or are released unharmed. However, there is accidental and unavoidable mortality of non-target species.
A challenge for every fisherman is to design and use equipment and methods which selectively catch the target fish the fisherman wants while minimizing non-targeted "bycatch" (unwanted catch) and discards (rejects returned to the sea) where our discards become something else's lunch.
If you were to design a program to reduce the bycatch in a fishery, you would want to answer a few basic questions:
A Case Study
Over the last thirty years, one area of the world has received a great amount of attention due to an unwanted bycatch of dolphins during fishing operations. The eastern tropical Pacific (ETP) yellowfin tuna fishery, an 8 million square mile area stretching from California to Chile and out to Hawaii, is the traditional fishing grounds for the U.S. tuna fleet and eight to nine other countries. This multi-country fleet has operated under the conservation programs of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) since 1949. Because of the presence of this conservation program, this fishery boasts one of the world's most comprehensive marine databases. In terms of science, this is a wonderful accomplishment. But this can be negative in that anyone can take numbers and generate hysteria.
Putting It In Perspective
So let's put the numbers in perspective. The eastern Pacific is the half of the Pacific Ocean that abuts the west coast of North America, Central and South America. Within this area is the yellowfin tuna fishery in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP).
Education Plus Commitment Equals Stunning Results
Educating the fishermen on the correct gear and how to use it has resulted in one of the cleanest, most efficient fisheries in the world. Fishing for tuna swimming in association with dolphins results in discards of less than 0.1 percent of the catch. Marine mammal mortality is a fraction of what is experienced in many other fisheries and it is recognized that substitution of other gear would result in higher dolphin mortality. In addition, concentrating the fishing on the mature and large yellowfin tuna keeps the fishery healthy and avoids overfishing the resource.
Avoiding all dolphin interaction ("dolphin safe" as currently defined) forces the fishermen to fish on small yellowfin which scientists estimate will reduce the production of yellowfin tuna by 30 to 60 percent.
Additionally, focusing the fishing on smaller tunas which do not generally swim with dolphins, results in unacceptably high discards of as much as 30 percent of the catch. These discards include many other fish, billfish, sharks and sea turtles. "Dolphin safe" needs to be redefined as a gold star for perfect performance by the fishermen in releasing dolphins unharmed. This definition encourages fishermen to continue improving their performance at releasing the involved dolphins unharmed while catching very clean schools of very large yellowfin. This redefinition lets the fishermen earn a living while keeping the fishery healthy.
Simply put, marine mammals are present in all the world's oceans and therefore all the world's fisheries. An allowance for interaction and some mortality allows fishermen to earn a living and supply the world with a food product. If we are to continue to make progress in addressing environmental issues, we need to base our fisheries policies on fact, not fantasy, and support rational, scientifically based conservation programs in every ocean of the world.
Scott, Michael: The Tuna-Dolphin Controversy, August 1998.
Carpenter, Betsy: What Price Dolphin? Scientists are reckoning the true cost of sparing an endearing mammal, June 1994. (PDF)