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Dolphin Safe?

The Mexican tuna industry should not be allowed to use Dolphin Safe seals on products if relaxed standards proposed by the Bush administration don't protect dolphins.

St. Petersburg Times January 14, 2003

(A Times Editorial)

The Dolphin Safe seal on a can of tuna is -- or was -- one of the brightest environmental success stories of the last decade. To earn the seal, tuna producers had to switch to fishing practices that protect dolphins from injury and death. Soon after the seal was introduced, American consumers would buy nothing else, and the U.S. tuna industry was forced to abandon its old ways. That paid off both for tuna sales and dolphins. While 700,000 dolphins were killed by tuna fishermen in 1967, that number dropped to 25,000 in 1991.

So why speak of such success in the past tense? The Bush administration is trying to change the standard for safe fishing practices that, if adopted, would make the seal almost meaningless. Quietly, on New Year's Eve, U.S. Commerce Secretary Donald Evans decided that chase-and-encircle netting practices used by Mexican fishermen would not disqualify their product from displaying the Dolphin Safe seal on imported tuna. Yet in making that decision, Evans ignored information from the government's own advisers that says those practices endanger dolphins.

When environmental and animal welfare groups protested the decision, Evans put the new rule on hold for 90 days while the matter is settled in court.

But the administration did not back down. "We stand by our original decision to change the label. . ." said Commerce official Bill Hogarth. That is a shame.

For reasons scientists don't fully understand, dolphins and tuna in the eastern Pacific Ocean gather together in large numbers. Mexican fishing fleets spot the dolphins from helicopters, then race out in speed boats to chase and encircle them (and the fish) with purse seine nets several miles long. Once the dolphins are exhausted, the nets are tightened and the dolphins supposedly are released unharmed. But there is gathering evidence that the practice is doing irreparable damage to dolphin populations.

Two species of dolphins that were decimated in the past have failed to rebound, and researchers suspect tuna fishermen are responsible. During the chase, dolphins can be separated from their young, injured and subjected to enough stress to cause biological harm. A review of research led the Marine Mammal Commission -- an independent agency -- to advise Evans that Mexican tuna fishing practices were "having adverse effects on the recovery of depleted dolphin stocks and that the magnitude of those effects, at both the individual and population levels, may be significant."

Evans relied instead on the reports of international observers on tuna boats who monitor dolphin mortality. But those reports are not reliable, said Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Observers may not see much of what goes on along the miles of nets, and they can be easily intimidated or influenced, he said.

The Mexican tuna industry understands that its product will not sell in the United States if it doesn't carry the Dolphin Safe seal. But changing the standard would undermine the very integrity of the program, which has informed consumers and saved millions of dolphins. Instead, Mexican tuna fleets should adopt safe practices that have worked well for American fishermen. (Consumers can continue to protect dolphins by buying the three major brands of canned tuna -- Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea and Starkist -- whose producers have pledge to continue their acceptable practices.)

Despite the outcome of the lawsuit, Congress should act as soon as possible. It should amend the law to preclude tuna caught by chase-and-encircle fishing practices from being granted the Dolphin Safe seal.

To send a prepared e-mail to Secretary of Commerce Evans and Secretary of State Colin Powell please to go