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New US Fisheries Rule Will Help Resolve Dolphin Safe Label Dispute with Mexico

Regulation extends current protections for dolphins to tuna-fishing operations across the world

The United States issued a new federal fisheries rule on Tuesday that extends current protections for dolphins to other tuna fisheries around the world. The new rule will improve reporting on the safety of dolphins and at the same time resolve a bitter World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute between the US and Mexico. The new rule issued by the US National Marine Fisheries Service will go into effect on July 13.

“This rule helps protect dolphins by requiring tuna fishermen to confirm that dolphins were not chased, netted, or captured in nets,” said David Phillips, executive director of Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project. “It makes the rule uniform throughout all tuna fisheries.”

common dolphins porpoisingphoto by Mark J. PalmerCommon dolphins, Magdalena Bay

IMMP developed the Dolphin Safe label in 1990 after a long campaign against the killing of dolphins in tuna nets. More than 7 million dolphins have been killed since the method of using purse seine nets to catch tuna was developed in the late 1950s. In the late 1980s, the estimates of dolphin deaths ranged from 80,000 to 100,000 each year. Last year, thanks to the Dolphin Safe label, less than 2,000 dolphins are estimated to have died.

Until now, the requirements for the Dolphin Safe tuna label was restricted to the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP), where tuna regularly swim with dolphins. Some fishermen target dolphins to catch the tuna, injuring and drowning thousands of dolphins every year. To use a Dolphin Safe tuna label in the US, tuna companies using fish caught in the ETP have to provide statements from boat captains and from onboard observers that no dolphins were chased or netted during fishing operations.

Mexico, which continues to target and kill dolphins during its fishing operations, had complained to the WTO that these requirements single out Mexico’s tuna fishing industry.

Broadening the rule to cover other oceans of the world beyond the ETP addresses the WTO dispute by requiring uniform verification information from all tuna fishermen for Dolphin Safe tuna. The proposal will also put more pressure on tuna fishermen around the world to avoid accidental injury and deaths of dolphins in tuna nets and other gear outside the ETP.

Earth Island Institute's Dolphin Safe logo, a certified trademark.

The new rule further requires reporting of any dolphins killed or seriously injured by purse seine nets and other fishing gear used for tuna. This rarely happens unless tuna fishermen deliberately target dolphin pods. The rule stipulates that any tuna catch that harmed dolphins during the netting process must be kept separate from Dolphin Safe tuna and cannot be labeled as “Dolphin Safe.”

More than 90 percent of the world’s tuna is caught without targeting dolphins. Only Mexico, Venezuela and Colombian tuna fishermen continue to chase and net dolphins in order to catch the tuna that swim beneath, killing and harming thousands of dolphins annually.

“Thousands of dolphins continue to be killed in tuna nets. So weakening the US Dolphin Safe tuna standards was not an option,” Phillips said. “Mexico’s ploy to force the US to allow Mexican dolphin-deadly tuna to be labeled Dolphin Safe is thankfully being rejected.”

For further information on Dolphin Safe tuna, Earth Island’s tuna monitoring program, and a list of companies worldwide that adhere to Earth Island’s strong Dolphin Safe tuna standards, go to:

Mark J. Palmer
Mark J. Palmer is Associate Director of the International Marine Mammal Project.

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