International Marine Mammal Project

Bush administration wrong on dolphin protection

Earth Island News

Through federal court action and new scientific research, IMMP continues to show that the Bush administration is harming dolphins in the name of trade politics.

IMMP obtained a series of memos that show the Bush administration has a pattern of disregarding science at the expense of dolphin protection from the Eastern Tropical Pacific tuna fishery, where fishermen deliberately chase and net dolphins in order to catch the tuna that swim beneath them. More than seven million dolphins have died since the use of deadly purse seine nets began in the late 1950s.

Despite the wealth of scientific data showing severe harm to dolphin populations from the continued chasing and netting of dolphins by the tuna fishery, Bush’s Commerce Secretary Donald Evans made a legal finding on Dec. 31, 2002, that chasing and netting dolphins has “no significant adverse impact” on depleted dolphin populations. This finding automatically weakened the standards for using the “Dolphin Safe” label on canned tuna in the US.

Within hours of the government’s announcement, IMMP filed a lawsuit, Earth Island Institute v. Commerce Secretary Evans, to prevent the “Dolphin Safe” tuna label from being weakened by the Bush administration. New evidence obtained by IMMP shows that the Bush administration consistently ignored its own scientists to cater to Mexican millionaires.

According to one important government staff e-mail provided to federal court by IMMP, the Bush administration knew that official government observers on Mexican tuna vessels were routinely given $10,000 bribes each trip to falsify data on the chasing and netting of dolphins.

IMMP director David Phillips commented: “It is deplorable that the Bush administration would withhold key evidence from the federal court showing that the levels of chasing and killing dolphins are fraudulently underestimated. Sadly, the Bush administration routinely ignores science in favor of overtly political decisions that harm the environment. This time they were caught.”

“Congress prohibited weakening the Dolphin Safe tuna label unless science showed that this fishing practice wasn’t harming dolphins,” added Phillips. “The Bush administration has blatantly ignored its own scientists, caving in to demands from Mexico that their falsely labeled tuna be allowed on US supermarket shelves.”

According to the e-mail, US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) biologists interviewed an American fisherman in 1999 who worked aboard Mexican tuna vessels. The fisherman claimed that “although they always had observers onboard, it was common knowledge throughout the fleet that the observers were regularly paid off to misreport what happened during the cruise… He said he had personally been onboard when the Mexican observers were handed $10,000 to report all the (tuna) catch as ‘dolphin safe.’”

Under provisions of the US Magnuson-Stevens Act, if NMFS found that a fisherman bribed a US government observer onboard a fishing vessel, the vessel’s fishing permit would be suspended and the fishermen would be subject to a $100,000 penalty and up to six months in jail. Bribing an official is both a civil and criminal offense under US law.

Yet when IMMP confronted the Bush administration in court with the fact that the e-mail had not been added to the official Record of EII v Evans, much less followed up on by the administration, government lawyers responded that the e-mail was “not considered or relied upon by the decision maker (Commerce Secretary Evans).” The Bush administration argued in court that Evans had not considered this key information when asserting in 2002 that netting and chasing dolphins causes “no significant adverse impacts on dolphins,” because it was not relevant or quantifiable.

In an April 15 ruling, Judge Thelton Henderson called the Justice lawyers’ arguments “unpersuasive” and “specious.” He ordered that the e-mail be included in the official record of the case and insisted that the agency conduct a search for other documentation questioning the reliability of observer estimates.

Judge Henderson’s April 15 order found that: “[D]ocuments that are before the decision-maker that go to the reliability or credibility of data relied upon by the decision-maker are plainly relevant… The government’s failure to acknowledge this point is deeply troubling and reveals a glaring omission in the manner in which the record was compiled.”

An Israeli study on the dynamics of swimming dolphins confirms recent research developed by NMFS scientists: Chasing and netting of dolphins, as promoted by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), the Bush administration, and the tuna industry of Mexico, separates dolphin calves from their mothers. Unable to keep up with the dolphin herd, these young either starve or are quickly snapped up by sharks that follow dolphin herds and tuna vessels in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.

This new study shows that encircling dolphins with deadly nets can never be considered “Dolphin Safe.” The IATTC program, endorsed by the Bush administration, does not protect dolphins.

IMMP developed international standards for “Dolphin Safe” tuna that are adhered to by more than 90 percent of the world’s canned tuna markets. IMMP standards require that no dolphins be chased or netted during an entire fishing trip in order to qualify as “Dolphin Safe.” These standards have been the required standards for use of a “Dolphin Safe” tuna label in the US since 1990’s passage of the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act, authored by then Representative Barbara Boxer (D-CA).

Only adherence to IMMP’s standards for “Dolphin Safe” tuna will dolphins and other marine life be protected for future generations.

— Mark J. Palmer

Drive fishery in Taiji

It was still dark on a chilly morning in late January when we arrived at the lagoon in Taiji, Japan, where a pod of 100 to 150 bottlenose dolphins spent their last night in the open sea. A day earlier, we had seen fishermen corral the dolphins from offshore into the lagoon. In a few more hours, ten of these dolphins would be taken into lifelong captivity. The rest would be brutally slaughtered.

The dolphins swam and leapt from the water. When dawn came, the fishermen got into outboard motorboats and started to drive the dolphins toward shore. The entire pod of dolphins, including adults and babies, was trapped by fishing nets despite desperate attempts to escape.

Dozens of dolphin trainers in wetsuits got into the water, ropes in their hands, catching the frightened dolphins and pulling them toward the shore. The trainers selected the most desirable dolphins for the aquariums and lined them up on the shore, measuring the mammals and determining their sex and approximate age.

The selection procedure lasted for about three hours. Many of the dolphins sustained injuries such as dislocated pectoral fins as they experienced gravity and rough handling by human hands for the first time. Eventually all of the dolphins were pulled to the shore and held there by ropes attached to their tailfins.

The fishermen erected tents to hide the ensuing slaughter from the witnesses and their video cameras. Over the last few years, films and photos of dolphin slaughter taken and distributed by foreign NGOs such as Blue Voice and Sea Shepherd have caused conflicts between environmentalists and fishermen, who wish to avoid world outrage over their actions.

The Japanese government issues 22,000 dolphin permits during each hunting season, which lasts from October to March. Due to the increase of dolphin facilities and swim-with-dolphin programs both in and out of Japan, the number of live catches is increasing. Fishermen sell dolphins to aquariums for approximately 300,000 to 900,000 yen (3,000 to 9,000 US dollars), depending on the species. An international coalition of animal rights and environmental organizations is currently preparing a proposal to offer financial subsidies to those who abandon drive fishery. But change is slow. Whaling has been part of the Japanese culture for centuries. Through educating the public about the cruelty inflicted upon dolphins during this annual practice, activists hope to peacefully bring an end to the barbaric treatment of these magnificent mammals, and end the despicable trade in those imprisoned in aquariums and theme parks.

— Chie Yoshimune

Dolphins rescued from Haiti capture

When One Voice received an urgent appeal from an anonymous source in Haiti to come to the rescue of several bottlenose dolphins that were confined in a small and shallow sea enclosure in the Arcadins Islands, its Marine Mammal Specialist, Ric O’Barry, went to Port-au-Prince to persuade them to let the dolphins return to the wild.

In February, a special permit to capture ten dolphins for “education and tourism” was given to the company “Action Haiti” by the Aristide government, just a few weeks before it fell from power. An unidentified Spanish corporation financed the captures, and a Mexican team brought in to capture and train the dolphins. Two of the ten captured dolphins died in transport, and two died later in the enclosure.

O’Barry met with the secretary of State for the Environment, Yves-Andre Wainright, who gave One Voice permission to inspect the dolphin facility. Based on O’Barry’s findings and legal considerations, the authorities would determine whether the dolphins should be confiscated and released.

On May 22 O’Barry inspected the dolphin enclosure, accompanied by government officials and armed police officers. Six male dolphins were confined in a small sea-cage, no more than 15 by 15 feet. Several of the dolphins had so-called rake marks on their bodies, teeth marks from dolphins biting one another. In the open sea, incompatible males simply swim away from one another. In this tiny cage they were constantly fighting for the little space they had. Five of the dolphins had stretcher burns—scars from mishandling during capture and transport—under their pectoral fins

The enclosure provided no shade from the hot sun and was just five feet deep at its deepest end. Shallow water gets very hot during the summer.

One Voice had to get the dolphins out of their cage before the heat of the summer set in, or else the dolphins would be stuck in shallow, hot water throughout the long summer months, causing immense discomfort and putting them at great risk for sunburn, diseases, and even death.

One Voice urged Wainright to order the dolphins released before more died. Wainright agreed with these recommendations, saying he would meet with the Minister of Agriculture, Philippe Matthieu, who would ultimately determine the dolphins’ fate.

Meanwhile, letters from concerned NGOs from all over the world reached the ministers, urging them to let the dolphins return to the wild.

On June 1, O’Barry met with Mathieu, who announced that he had taken the recommendations of One Voice into consideration, and a decision had been made to set the dolphins free. He continued: “Allowing entrepreneurs to come to Haiti and profit from the misery of our natural treasures is not going to solve any of our problems,” Mathieu said. “Giving the dolphins their freedom back is the right thing to do both for the dolphins and for the people of Haiti.”

On June 3, the Haitian Coast Guard began taking the dolphin cage apart. When the third metal pole had been pulled out and removed, the first three dolphins darted out of their cage. A smaller cage contained six green sea turtles that were also set free. To see a video of the release, visit

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