|This article was first published in U.S. News & World Report, June 13, 1994, and is reproduced with permission of the author.
Strengthening “Dolphin Safe” While Supporting Responsible Fishermen
Concerned citizens around the country are aware that legislation has been introduced to make changes to the popular “dolphin safe” label on the cans of tuna fish. People who have never seen a tuna fishing boat are second guessing what is involved and worry if the dolphins are in any danger.
Over a dozen countries share the valuable and healthy international tuna fishery in the eastern Pacific Ocean, spread from Southern California to Chile and out to Hawaii. The high seas fishermen use purse seine nets like fences to encircle the large tunas and the dolphins that commonly associate with tuna in this ocean. Then they release the associated dolphins before putting the tuna on board. This is the preferred method of fishing in the eastern Pacific yellowfin tuna fishery, the traditional fishing grounds of our Southern California tuna fleet. As the world’s largest yellowfin tuna fishery, the area annually produces about 30% of the world’s yellowfin tuna.
Since 1949, the La Jolla, California based Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) has advised governments on the status of the tuna stocks in this international fishery in order to maximize the use of the resource and prevent overfishing. Fishery ministers from over a dozen countries, including the U.S., are active participants in this international forum.
In 1986, the Commission was charged with developing a fishermen’s education program with the goal of reducing fishery-related marine mammal mortality. A widely-circulated video was released shortly after the program started. It showed a Panamanian boat fishing illegally, without releasing the involved dolphins as required before putting the fish on board. The video highlighted exactly the problem the IATTC addressed through its International Dolphin Conservation Program.
Since 1986, governments, fishermen and environmental groups have been elated by the remarkable reduction in dolphin mortality in this fishery from a peak of 134,000 animals in 1986 to below 4,000. In fact, the Marine Mammal Protection Act considers takes as high as 55,000 to 60,000 dolphins as well below sustainable for as many dolphins (ten million) as are present in this eight million square mile tuna fishery.
Many people believe this success was the result of public outcry over the videotape of the Panamanian boat fishing illegally combined with the “dolphin safe” policy. But the current “dolphin safe” labeling policy has little to do with the decline in dolphin mortality because most Pacific yellowfin tuna are caught by fishermen intentionally encircling these dolphin-associated large tunas. None of these tunas can be sold into our markets as “dolphin safe.” These fishermen are ineligible to secure a dolphin safe label even when they release all the dolphins unharmed.
In truth, the International Dolphin Protection Program succeeded due to the efforts of the fishermen who, once taught by the scientists, excelled in correctly handling their gear and releasing the involved marine mammals. Why? Because most fishermen, like most people, object to waste and animals dying needlessly.
Most consumers also incorrectly assume that the current definition of “dolphin safe” ensures that no dolphins were killed in the process of catching tuna.
“Dolphin safe” presently means the tuna was caught without encircling a single dolphin during the entire fishing trip. Responsible purse seine fishermen in the eastern Pacific fishing for large tunas associating with dolphins are operating under a blacklisting of their product and will never get the label. Ironically, they could qualify for a “dolphin safe” label if they substitute any non-encircling-type gear to catch tunas, even if that gear caused massive dolphin losses. The Clinton-Gore administration and Congress is attempting to rectify this situation by redefining “dolphin safe” to mean what most people think it means: that no dolphins were killed in the production of this tuna.
Dolphins, tunas and fishermen aren’t the only creatures in the eastern Pacific caught up in this mess. In an effort to comply with the current “no encirclement = dolphin safe” definition, some fishermen fish on immature tunas in nursery areas near shore because these younger fish do not associate with dolphins. If the entire fleet were to fish this way, yellowfin tuna production could be reduced by as much as 60 percent. And because small tunas associate with a variety of other fish, sharks, billfish and turtles, the discards at sea increase from 0.1 percent of the catch for dolphin-associated tuna fishing to 20 to 30 percent of the catch for non-dolphin associated tuna fishing. Although a recent United Nations resolution urges fisheries to reduce bycatch of unwanted species, “dolphin safe” mandates eastern Pacific tuna fishermen dramatically increase bycatch in order to avoid a biologically insignificant impact on dolphin stocks.
Clearly “dolphin safe” is not environmentally sound but this wasteful discarding will be eliminated once the “dolphin safe” definition is amended.
Mexico and the European Union successfully argued before the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that this U.S. policy was a thinly veiled trade barrier benefiting canneries sourcing their fish from unregulated oceans. They argued that our policy was based on the flawed concept that there are 10 million dolphins in the eastern Pacific fishery and none anywhere else in the world. Marine mammals are present in all the world’s oceans and therefore, by extension, in virtually all the world’s fisheries and the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) recognizes an allowance for unavoidable marine mammal kills by all fishermen. The objection now is against the “intentional” encirclement of dolphins, even though, when done correctly the fishermen are able to “intentionally” release the involved marine mammals resulting in dolphin losses at a fraction of the percentages allowed under the MMPA.
The International Dolphin Conservation Program Act, introduced by Senators Breaux and Stevens, Congressmen Gilchrest, Young and others, supports the IATTC’s program. The bill removes U.S. embargoes on fish produced under the IATTC’s program. The bill also modifies the “dolphin safe” purchasing policy to include fish produced when 100 percent of the encircled dolphins are released unharmed, a “gold star” for perfect performance as verified by on-board observers. This definition encourages the fishermen in their efforts, while allowing them to harvest clean schools of very large tunas and keep the fishery healthy, and assures the customer that no dolphins died in the production of their tuna.
The International Dolphin Conservation Program Act (S.1420, H.R. 2823) is supported by twelve countries and the Clinton administration. Groups supporting the Act include Greenpeace, Center for Marine Conservation, World Wildlife Fund, American Sportfishing Association, National Fisheries Institute, Alliance for America, New Jersey Seafood Harvesters, Blue Water Fishermen’s Association, Recreational Fishing Alliance, Alliance for America, many other groups and tuna fishermen.
With so many fisheries under pressure, it is important that our policies and marketing programs support the efforts of responsible fishermen working with scientists of international management regimes such as the IATTC. The International Dolphin Conservation Program Act effectively balances the needs of people with the complexities of ecosystem management and the concerns of an aware and involved public.
Teresa Platt is co-director of The Fishermen’s Coalition (619-575-4664), a non-profit founded in 1992 to educate the public about responsible fishing. The Fishermen’s Coalition works with New Jersey fishing interests on reaching solutions to fisheries issues.
Platt, Teresa: A Tuna Tale: Managing A Fishery to Increase Positives, Reduce Negatives, April 1996.
Carpenter, Betsy: What Price Dolphin? Scientists are reckoning the true cost of sparing an endearing mammal, June 1994. (PDF)