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Questions and Answers with Humane Society of the United States’s

Kitty Block About the 'Dolphin Safe' Label

Kitty Block, special counsel to The HSUS's United Nations and Treaties department, has followed the U.S. government's attempts to weaken the "Dolphin Safe" label for years. She offers her insights into what the Bush Administration's recent decision to gut the label will mean for the dolphins, for consumers, and for the future of the tuna industry.

How will the Department of Commerce's decision to weaken the "Dolphin Safe" label impact the dolphin populations in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) Ocean?

Plain and simple, more dolphins will needlessly die each year. More tuna bearing the disingenuous "Dolphin Safe" label will come into this country. Unsuspecting but well-intentioned consumers will purchase cans of tuna with the new label—unaware that they will be contributing to the death of dolphins.

A Congressionally mandated scientific report reveals that the technique favored by the Mexican tuna fleet and some other nations—in which boats drop massive, miles-long nets to deliberately chase and encircle dolphins, which often swim with tuna—causes significant harm and death to dolphins. This August 2002 report, an accumulation of government research conducted from 1997 to 2002, proves that dolphin populations are severely depleted and not recovering due to the tuna fishery. Weakening the "Dolphin Safe" label would simply increase the slaughter.

Among the report's findings are these statistics: Nets are set on schools of dolphins 7,500 times each year, resulting in the chasing of 9.3 million dolphins each year and the capture of 2.3 million dolphins each year. Individual dolphins in the ETP are chased an average of 5.6 times each year and captured an average of 0.7 times each year for depleted Eastern Spinner dolphins, and they are chased 10.6 times each year and captured 3.2 times each year for depleted Northeastern Offshore Spotted dolphins. The report states that physiological stress (resulting in decreased births, impaired health, and deaths of dolphins) is a plausible explanation for the lack of recovery of dolphin populations. (See the related link to learn more about the report's findings.)

When will the new "Dolphin Safe" label take effect? When will consumers see Mexican tuna on the U.S. market?

The label has already taken effect, and the U.S. Tuna Foundation reports that some tuna caught by intentionally chasing and encircling dolphins has already entered the U.S. market under the "Dolphin Safe" label. But the government agreed on January 7 to halt implementation of the new label until a hearing can be held on a request for a preliminary injunction. The hearing will likely take place in early March 2003. Until then, the tougher "Dolphin Safe" standards will remain. The legal issues surrounding the label are changing weekly. We will give you as much notice as possible as to if, when and where the redifined label will appear.

Now that the "Dolphin Safe" label has been weakened, is there any way for consumers to protect themselves from buying "deadly dolphin" tuna?

Yes there is, but it will require that consumers become educated about the different "Dolphin Safe" labels. Previously, a can of tuna either had a "Dolphin Safe" label or it didn't. Now there will be two labels—one truly dolphin safe and the other dolphin deadly. The HSUS, along with other environmental and animal-protection organizations, will educate consumers on which label does not harm dolphins. We will also call on stores and restaurants to carry dolphin safe tuna only. We will provide a list of these stores and restaurants that pledge to sell only dolphin safe tuna. Then we will also provide a list of truly "Dolphin Safe" brands to help consumers navigate the market.

Will U.S. fisheries adopt chasing-and-encircling techniques now that the label is weakened?

No. The three major U.S. tuna companies—StarKist, Bumble Bee, and Chicken of the Sea, which make up 90% of the market—have all said that they will remain dolphin safe. They stopped deliberately chasing and encircling dolphins more than 10 years ago. They have found economically viable alternatives to setting nets on dolphins. So there is no reason for them to turn back the clocks on dolphin protection. What's more, they know that U.S. consumers have come to trust that their brands do not harm dolphins. I can't imagine they would want to jeopardize the goodwill that has been established over the years.

Other fisheries have altered their techniques to conform to the "Dolphin Safe" label. Why won't Mexico?

Some fishers argue that they can land bigger tuna, because older tuna tend to associate with dolphins, but this has never been proven. Another reason offered is that it's simply easier to locate schools of dolphins (because they swim closer to the surface) than to locate schools of tuna. Some have argued that it would take time and (initially) some extra money to alter their methods. Yet this argument is not credible. The costs of converting to the other forms of fishing is relatively low and not time consuming, because the same ships and nets are used in the other forms of fishing. In fact, to set on dolphins, a vessel needs even more equipment; it requires speedboats and other expensive devices not necessary on boats that don't set on dolphins. Finally, it could just be a matter of tradition: Some have been fishing this way for years and could be resistant to change.

Ironically, some fishers and canneries in Mexico have converted to dolphin safe practices. Though these fishers are clearly in the minority, it is a positive trend, and proves that it can be done with little additional capital.

Why has the U.S. government been so interested in weakening the label to appease Mexico? In other words, what does the United States stand to gain?

It is a good question, and many people have tried guessing as to why the U.S. government has been so willing to accommodate Mexico's demands for a weakened label. However, I have not heard any one answer that would explain our government's willingness to sacrifice the lives of dolphins and mislead consumers to appease the Mexican fishing industry.