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Tuna companies say no change in fishing practices, despite relaxation of no seine rule


The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)

28th January 2003

U.S. tuna producers, including Bumble Bee Tuna Seafoods Inc., which has offices in Violet, said they won't change their fishing methods in response to the Bush administration's decision to loosen labeling standards for cans of 'dolphin-safe' tuna.

The new definition would allow cans labeled dolphin-safe to include fish caught using 'purse seine nets' and other methods that conservationists say once led to 350,000 dolphin deaths a year and also will open U.S. markets to imported Mexican fish.

The announcement met a storm of criticism, with the U.S. Department of Commerce agreeing last week to delay changing the labeling rules for 90 days after conservation and animal-rights groups filed suit to block the move in federal court.

But representatives of the nation's major tuna sellers -- Star-Kist Foods Inc., Chicken of the Sea International and Bumble Bee -- said the industry will ignore the debate between the National Marine Fisheries Service and conservationists over the definition and continue to uphold their own standards, which require using tuna caught without injuring dolphins. Pressure to compete

Even officials from Thailand's major tuna exporter, which operated Chicken of the Sea and does about $300 million worth of business in the United States yearly, said the changes were unlikely to dent their market share in the short term, despite Mexico's favored trading status under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

'Our position has been and is that we will continue to abide by the old definition of 'dolphin-safe,' ' said John Striker, a senior vice president for product management and marketing at Bumble Bee, which uses its Violet plant mostly for canning shrimp.

The relaxed labeling requirements came as a result of heavy pressure from the World Trade Organization and Latin American trading partners, such as Mexico, that hope to export tuna to the United States. In early January, Mexico's Agriculture Department called the move 'a significant advance,' saying their companies can't compete without the loosened requirements for a dolphin-safe label.

But the move flies in the face of what officials from the Earth Island Institute called one of the most successful consumer boycotts in history, which forced the U.S. tuna industry to adopt the world's toughest dolphin-protection measures in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Findings disputed

And two former scientists from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, who researched dolphin populations for the federal government, said last week that the relaxed criteria ignore their findings, which show that the newly allowable fishing techniques place undue stress on the marine mammals.

Officials from the National Marine Fisheries Service, however, said they found 'no significant impact' on dolphin populations as a result of the changes and denied suppressing the scientists' research.

That didn't appease some legislators. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced legislation last week to overturn the Commerce Department's decision, calling it 'cynical.'

The furor does nothing to change the will of consumers who demanded the labeling system and who enforce it with buying power, Bumble Bee's Striker said.

'The area where it's possible for Mexican tuna to come in is private-label manufacturers,' he said. 'But our sense is that public pressure will make that challenging. A few years ago, Kroger tried to bring in Mexican tuna and saw a tremendous outcry.'