Protecting Dolphins from Drowning in Nets


Earth Island has played a central role in ending the practice of setting tuna nets on dolphins by the United States tuna industry, and influencing other countries to do the same. For reasons scientists still do not completely understand, large yellowfin tuna swim underneath schools of dolphins in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP), so tuna fisherman targeted dolphins schools with speed boats and helicopters, before encircling the dolphins in purse seine tuna nets. When the nets are pulled in like a purse around the tuna, the air breathing dolphins are often injured or drowned. Between 1959 and 1976, it is estimated that more than SIX MILLION dolphins drowned in tuna nets in the ETP. In 1987, then Earth Island biologist Sam Labudde signed on as a cook on a Mexican purse seine tuna vessel, and surreptitiously filmed dolphins dying in tuna nets by the thousands. Labudde sent his footage to the U.S. Congress, which in response amended the Marine Mammal Protection Act, in an effort to further safeguard these playful, intelligent mammals.

When the U.S. fleet appeared to ignore many of the protections of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Protect took the lead in a series of successful lawsuits against the Departments of Commerce and State, requiring the industry to safeguard dolphins while catching tuna. These cases were handled pro bono by Heller, Ehrman White & McAuliffe (by, among others, current directors Josh Floum and Deborah Sivas) and later by Legal Strategies Group and Holme, Roberts and Owen (Josh Floum and current director Ariela St. Pierre). Other lawyers notably involved on behalf of the dolphins were Robert Borton, Elizabeth Gunther, Michael Charlson and Cynthia Koehler.

The parties to the lawsuits drew former Chief Judge Thelton E. Henderson of the U.S District Court for the Northern District of California, who authored several landmark animal protection decisions. On January 5, 1989, Judge Henderson ordered the entire U.S. fleet back to port and required each vessel to carry an official observer to monitor dolphin mortality.  At a later time, he ordered an end to the fishing season due to the fact that tuna operators were undercounting the number of dolphins harmed or killed during fishing sets.

Later, under the provisions of the MMPA, Judge Henderson ordered the embargo of tuna imports from certain countries which were not utilizing similar safety practices as those required of the US fleet. These embargos led to challenges in the then General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade Court in Geneva, the first trade/environment issue ever considered by that body. 

In the meantime, Earth Island, under the leadership of IMMP (Dave Phillips, Mark Berman and Mark Palmer) created the dolphin safe tuna label, and ultimately persuaded H.J. Heinz, the owners of StarKist tuna, to go dolphin safe and stop setting tuna nets on dolphins. Around the country, schoolchildren were asking their parents to stop buying dolphin deadly tuna, and ultimately all U.S. tuna suppliers followed Starkist’s lead and stopped setting nets on dolphins.

In the U.S. dolphin deaths in purse seine nets went from hundreds of thousands each year to zero! Just recently the WTO affirmed the legality of Earth Island’s dolphin safe label. 


International Marine Mammal Project


Josh Floum & Deborah Sivas, Heller, Ehrman White & McAuliffe

Josh Floum & Ariela St. Pierre, Legal Strategies Group (now Kilpatrick Townsend)

Josh Floum & Ariela St. Pierre, Holme, Roberts and Owen

Focus Area

Wildlife Protection