US Fisheries Service to Expand Dolphin Safe Tuna Certification Requirements

Proposed rule seeks better verification of dolphin safety during tuna fishing, addresses WTO’s concerns about uniform standards

The US National Marine Fisheries Service proposed a new rule last Friday that would extend current protections for dolphins to tuna fisheries around the world. By doing so, the rule would improve reporting on dolphin safety and help resolve a bitter World Trade Organization dispute between the United States and Mexico over Dolphin Safe tuna labels.

dolpins in the ocean Photo by Steve JurvetsonDolphins in the ocean near Kona, Hawaii. Schools of tuna regularly swim with dolphins in the
Eastern TropicalPacific Ocean.

Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) developed the Dolphin Safe label in 1990 after a 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 1950’s. In the late 1980’s, 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.

In the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP), which stretches from the coast of southern California down to Peru, and out into the ocean almost to Hawai’i, schools of tuna regularly swim with dolphins. Fishermen learned to target dolphins to catch the tuna, injuring and drowning thousands of dolphins in nets every year.

Dolphin Safe labels on tuna cans mean that dolphins were not deliberately targeted by tuna fishermen and that no dolphins were chased netted or killed during an entire tuna fishing trip. Even accidental death or serious injury of one dolphin is prohibited if a tuna company wishes to use the Dolphin Safe label in the US. IMMP has also developed agreements with individual tuna companies around the world to protect dolphins using the same standards.

Except for Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia (and a few companies in Latin America), most of the world’s tuna industry avoids harming dolphins and abides by the standards for Dolphin Safe tuna. To qualify to use a Dolphin Safe tuna label in the US, tuna companies must provide statements from boat captains that no dolphins were chased or netted during fishing operations.

The government of Mexico continues to allow its tuna fleets to chase, net and kill dolphins. They have tried since 1990 to overturn the US Dolphin Safe standards, but IMMP has fought back and maintained the standards in US law. Mexico took the matter to the World Trade Organization (WTO), claiming the Dolphin Safe label should be available to their tuna industry for US imports, despite the fact that they continue to kill dolphins. The WTO, in a confusing decision, agreed in part with Mexico, saying that the US government did not apply the Dolphin Safe standards uniformly. (Indeed, the reason for this is that dolphins do not swim with tuna in other oceans outside the ETP, so dolphin deaths are very rare events.)

The National Marine Fisheries Service’s new rule seeks to resolve the WTO issue. Under the proposed rule, the reporting requirements for the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean would be extended to other oceans as well, addressing the WTO claim that other countries are treated differently from Mexico. The Captain’s statement would be expanded to assert no dolphins were killed or seriously injured, and if onboard observers are used, they too would be asked to state whether the boat set nets on dolphins or whether any dolphins were killed or injured.

“This proposed rule would help protect dolphins by requiring tuna fishermen to confirm that dolphins were not chased, netted, or captured in nets, or killed or injured,” says IMMP director David Phillips. “It makes the rule uniform throughout all tuna fisheries.”

The proposal will also put more pressure on tuna fishermen in other oceans to avoid accidental injury and deaths of dolphins in tuna nets outside the ETP. Best of all, the proposal maintains the strong Dolphin Safe standards, instead of weakening them to falsely label Mexico’s tuna, stained with the blood of dolphins, as “Dolphin Safe.”(It should be noted that in Mexico, the canned tuna is all falsely labeled as “Amigo del Delfin” or “Friends of Dolphins”.)

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


Comment on and support the new rule, here.

The deadline for comments is May 6, 2013.

For further information on the Dolphin Safe tuna label and the standards, go to IMMP’s website for tuna consumers:

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