“Dolphin Safe” Concerns Everyone

“Dolphin Safe” Concerns Everyone

By: Staff  Date: 01/10/2012 Category: | Animal Legislation |

America's "dolphin safe" policy virtually eliminated the US tuna fleet from the eastern Pacific yellowfin tuna fishery in less than three years and subjected US tuna fishermen to pressures that few fleets could survive. The remaining boats now unload in Bangkok, not Puerto Rico, and pay for shipyard work in Singapore, not San Diego.

Ironically, their foreign successors in the eastern Pacific have embraced the dolphin conservation methods that California skippers pioneered but were forbidden to use. In doing so, they have reduced dolphin mortalities to levels that eliminate any threat to the mammals' growing populations, surpassing the standards that domestic US fleets must meet. Yet their catch is still embargoed from American markets, and American tuna fishermen are still barred from using the successful methods that would enable them to come home. Meanwhile, the "dolphin safe" label can be used on fish that is caught by far dirtier fisheries which take a much higher ecological toll on marine life, sometimes including dolphins.

Now Congress is considering legislation to straighten out this mess. Leading conservation groups and the Clinton administration support the change. Vice President Al Gore and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich have both publicly declared their support. But powerful animal rights organizations, using Hollywood spokesmen and "Free Willy" symbolism, are working to block this effort because it would allow fishermen once again to use a fishing method the activists abhor: encirclement and release of dolphins to capture the prized yellowfin tuna that follow them. These mistaken saviors are pushing their own legislation which would continue the rules that have done so much damage already to fishermen and to fisheries conservation and management. If you care about the oceans, this fight is your fight.



If such failed "conservation" regimes are allowed to stand, no fishery is safe. Moreover, many Americans still mistakenly believe that the nation's "dolphin safe" policies and product labels worked. That mistaken view lends support to other crude and costly adventures in eco-labeling. If eco-labeling is ever going to succeed (either for marine ecosystems or humans who harvest food from them), it will require a much better grasp of how fisheries actually work.

Eco-labeling is now spreading to other fisheries. The main eco-activist group behind the "dolphin safe" disaster has spawned a "turtle safe" shrimp campaign. In a separate effort, World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, a $50-billion a year multinational corporation, are promoting a Marine Stewardship Council to define and label "sustainable" fisheries worldwide and disrupt sales of identified eco-underachievers.

Before we move on to new "labels of sustainability," let's fix what went wrong with "dolphin safe," the first and the dirtiest of the eco-labels.

The International Dolphin Conservation Program Act (IDCPA, S1420, HR2823), introduced by Senator Breaux and Congressman Gilchrest, strengthens the "dolphin safe" label to mean what it says. It also builds on the achievements of foreign fishermen who participate in the successful dolphin conservation program under the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), by lifting US embargoes on their catch.

The efforts of the fishermen have reduced dolphin mortalities from a peak of 134,000 in 1986 to below 4000, or 0.04 percent of the 10 million dolphins present in this eight-million-square-mile tuna fishery. This is a fraction of what is allowed as biologically insignificant under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to US fishermen fishing in domestic waters. But little of the eastern Pacific fishery's 300,000 tons of tuna can be sold as "dolphin safe" because the present definition allows only tuna that is caught without encircling dolphins during the entire fishing trip. Eastern Pacific fishermen, who catch large tunas associating with dolphins, will never get the label. Ironically, they can receive the label if they abandon the area or substitute any non-encircling gear, even if those choices cause massive dolphin losses or unsustainable bycatch of fish and other creatures.

The IDCPA corrects this by redefining "dolphin safe" to a set-by-set performance-based standard verified by on-board observers. Fish from sets of the net where 100 percent of the encircled dolphins are released unharmed will qualify as "dolphin safe," a "gold star" for perfect performance. This ensures consumers that no dolphins died in production of the tuna and supports fishermen in dolphin-release efforts. It also allows the harvest of clean schools of very large tunas, keeping the fishery healthy.

The bill corrects another foul-up too. On the flawed assumption that there are 10 million marine mammals in the eastern Pacific and none anywhere else in the world, present US policy awards "dolphin safe" labels to fishermen in other oceans who operate under barely any scrutiny or enforcement. The effect? They must hide their marine mammal kills instead of seeking help to reduce them, or be blacklisted.

Trying to comply with the current "no encirclement" policy, some skippers fish on immature tunas, which associate less with dolphins. If the entire fleet were to fish this way, yellowfin 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 fishing on dolphin-associated mature tunas to 20 to 30 percent of the catch for fishing on non-dolphin-associated baby tunas. While other fisheries work to reduce bycatch, "dolphin safe" mandates eastern Pacific fishermen dramatically increase bycatch and impact juvenile tunas in order to avoid a biologically insignificant impact on dolphin stocks.

The US tuna fleet is a small community based in Southern California, no match for the powerful media players who oppose the IDCPA. Attack ads have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Times, Washington Post, and Washington DC's Roll Call. Signed by a list of who's who in the animal rights community as well as several dozen celebrities, the ads were organized by Hollywood's Earth Communications Office. The ECO is a publicist's dream. Busy actors simply indicate their preferences in earth-saving endeavors and ECO plugs them into fundraising and political opportunities to be seen while saving the Earth. Additionally, Senator Barbara Boxer is threatening to filibuster and Humane Society of The United States' Wayne Pacelle (previously of Fund for Animals and the Animal Rights Alliance) has drafted a dolphin rights amendment with staff from the office of Senator Robert Smith of New Hampshire. Although Senator Smith is conservative on property rights issues, his aides appear to be extreme on animal rights issues. The amendment Smith is pushing would effectively unravel the entire International Dolphin Conservation Program Act.

Fortunately for the oceans, a diverse group of allies has stepped in. They include Alliance for America, American Sportfishing Association, Center for Marine Conservation, Defenders of Property Rights, Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace, National Animal Interest Alliance, National Fisheries Institute, New Hampshire Land Owners Alliance, People for the West, Putting People First, Seafarers International Union, Western States Coalition, World Wildlife Fund, many other groups, unions and the governments and tuna industries of twelve countries. Still, those who care about the oceans have too much at stake to stay silent as this bill is debated.

If the Breaux-Gilchrest legislation passes, US vessels will fish sensibly again in the eastern Pacific and fishermen everywhere will benefit. Fishermen are all vulnerable to the same kind of final solution that hounded the US tuna fleet off the eastern Pacific. Any fishery could be next. To survive, fishermen need laws that balance the needs of harvesters with the complexities of ecosystem management and the concerns of an aware and involved public. If eco-labeling is to be the law, let's make sure the labels are friendly and fair to all - fishermen, fish, Flipper and the whole menagerie fishermen meet at sea.

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All Authors Of This Article: | Teresa Platt |
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