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International Marine Mammal Project

Scientists speak out for dolphins

International Marine Mammal Project

This coming September, Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans will be making a final "finding" on the question of whether chasing and netting dolphins to catch tuna causes "significant adverse impacts" on depleted dolphin populations (see EIJ Summer 2002). His decision, which by law is supposed to be based on scientific research, will determine whether or not the standards for the "Dolphin Safe" tuna label will be weakened or not.

In anticipation of this finding, environmental and animal welfare organizations and many scientists provided comments to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a branch of Secretary Evan's Department of Commerce, on the terrible toll the tuna fishery has taken on dolphins.

It is becoming increasingly clear, based largely on studies conducted by scientists with NMFS, that despite low reported kills of dolphins in tuna nets, dolphin populations are not showing a corresponding increase in numbers. In fact, two of the most depleted dolphin populations - the Northern spotted and Eastern spinner - show little sign of recovery over the last ten years of low reported mortality, and may in fact be decreasing in numbers.

Why? There are several proposed reasons. To quote from a letter sent to NMFS signed by nineteen biologists, including Dr. Paul Spong, Dr. Roger Payne, Dr. Albert Myrick, and Dr. Paul Forestell:

Reported impacts of the intentional chase and capture of dolphins by the tuna purse-seiners include spontaneous abortion of dolphin fetuses, separation of calves from mothers, gradual separation of dolphins from the original herd to decrease the number of dolphins in the nets, unobserved injuries caused by chase boat propellers and illegal use of explosives to herd dolphins, bleeding injuries on dolphins counted and released as "alive," dolphins showing major indications of being catatonic within the nets, disruption of feeding, mating, and caring for young, and increased vulnerability to predation by sharks. It is clear from recent NMFS surveys of dolphin populations in the ETP that the depleted Eastern spinner and Northern offshore spotted dolphin stocks are not recovering, despite low reported mortality, and that the tuna fishery is the most plausible cause of this lack of recovery, given the weight of peer-reviewed scientific research conducted to date. Other proposed causes so far lack strong scientific evidence, pending further investigation.

Jean Michel Cousteau also echoed these sentiments in a letter to NMFS:

"Weakening those (Dolphin Safe) standards would be contrary to the public's interest in protecting dolphins and it would be a public deception. Harassing and killing dolphins can in no imaginable way be considered safe for dolphins."

Earth Island Institute's International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) submitted 22 pages of detailed comments about the scientific evidence and showed that a finding by Secretary Evans could never claim that the tuna fishery poses "no significant adverse impacts" on depleted dolphin populations. Secretary Evans' predecessor in the Clinton Administration tried to make just such a finding, but a lawsuit by IMMP led to two court decisions (Brower v. Evans) protecting the integrity of the "Dolphin Safe" tuna label. In conclusion, IMMP wrote:

"The Secretary of Commerce must make his final Finding on the basis of science, not the failed politics of 'free trade' and a dysfunctional international agreement."

The Mexican government - at the behest of the handful of millionaires that control the tuna industry - has threatened to take the US to the World Trade Organization tribunal if the Secretary does not gut the meaning of the "Dolphin Safe" tuna label for them. This would allow a flood of tuna stained with the blood of dolphins, falsely labeled "Dolphin Safe," into the US.

What You Can Do: Send a letter immediately to Secretary Donald Evans, US Department of Commerce, 14th Street and Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20230. Urge him to keep the current strong standards for the "Dolphin Safe" tuna label (e.g. no chasing and netting of dolphins) in place this fall, when he makes his finding pursuant to the International Dolphin Conservation Program Act. Tell him you will not buy tuna caught by netting dolphins. For further information, contact IMMP at (415) 788-3666 or


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