International Marine Mammal Project

2002: A Year of Decision for Dolphins

Earth Island News

International Marine Mammal Project

In 1997, Congress passed the International Dolphin Conservation Program Act (IDCPA), a compromise bill that called for defining the legal meaning of the phrase “Dolphin Safe” based on the best scientific research. This year will mark the final IDCPA decision on the fate of the “Dolphin-Safe” label found on every can of US tuna.

Mexican tuna millionaires, helped by the pro-free-trade US State and Commerce Departments, advocate a meaningless “Dolphin Safe” label. Congress’ 1997 compromise allowed the Commerce Department to make two “findings” on whether chasing and netting dolphins caused “significant adverse impacts” on depleted dolphin populations. The federal standards for “Dolphin Safe” tuna now prohibit tuna fleets from encircling dolphins with the deadly nets to catch tuna. This standard would automatically be weakened if the Commerce Secretary determined that trapping dolphins in nets had “no significant adverse impacts” on the animals’ survival.

In 1999, then-Commerce Secretary William Daley made the first of these two findings. Ignoring his own scientists, Daley declared that, due to “insufficient evidence,” he could not “prove” that chasing and netting dolphins caused significant adverse impacts. Daley’s ruling allowed the tuna label standards to be weakened.

Earth Island Institute and a coalition of environmental and animal welfare organizations took Daley to court. Both the Federal Circuit Court and the Ninth District Court of Appeals ruled that Daley’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious.” Thus, the federal courts have protected the integrity of the “Dolphin Safe” tuna label.

The final finding will be made by Commerce Secretary Donald Evans this fall. Government scientists have gathered new evidence that dolphin populations are not recovering from depletion, as would be expected if the chasing and netting fishing practices were causing “no harm.” Chasing and netting dolphins is believed to cause serious physiological stress and injuries.

In a major paper published in 2001, National Marine Fisheries Service scientists announced that young, mother-dependent dolphins were missing from inside purse-seine fishing nets, indicating that they had been separated from their mothers and had presumably died. Information leaked from contacts inside the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission has questioned the credibility of official counts of low dolphin mortality based on the reports of on-board monitors on Mexican tuna vessels.

In December 2001, the US Coast Guard caught a Mexican-flagged vessel carrying illegal tuna caught during an official closure period. The Coast Guard also discovered the tuna boat was carrying 10.5 tons of cocaine.

The US, Canadian and European tuna companies and import associations - which comprise more than 90 percent of the world’s canned tuna markets - have voluntarily rejected the weakened “Dolphin Safe” standards proposed by the Commerce Department.

Unfortunately, the Commerce Department isn’t listening to environmentalists or US tuna companies. Under the guise of free trade, the Bush administration hopes to help the Mexican tuna millionaires profit by falsely labeling tuna stained by the blood of dolphins. If Bush succeeds, cans of dolphin-deadly tuna will begin flooding US supermarkets this fall.

What You Can Do Contact Secretary Donald Evans [US Department of Commerce, 14th Street & Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20230] and urge him to keep the current strong standards for the Dolphin-Safe tuna label. Tell him you will not buy tuna caught by netting dolphins. For more information, contact IMMP [300 Broadway, Suite 28, San Francisco, CA 94133, (415) 788-3666, ext. 146].

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