Dolphin Compromise a Partial Victory

by Mark J. Palmer

In August, President Clinton signed into law compromise dolphin legislation passed by the Senate in a 99-1 vote in July. Earth Island Institute and the 85-member Dolphin Safe/Fair Trade Campaign defeated some of the worst aspects of the original Dolphin Death Act, but the compromise still leaves the fate of thousands of dolphins in question. With the establishment of Public Law 105-42, the fight to protect dolphins is shifting from the halls of Congress to your neighborhood supermarket. The new legislation maintains the current strong standards for dolphin-safe tuna, ensuring that no dolphin-deadly tuna will bear the dolphin-safe label.

And whereas the original bill prohibited the use of a dolphin-safe label other than the weakened federal dolphin-safe label standard, this provision was eliminated in the final bill. Under the compromise, tuna companies and environmentalists retain the right to develop alternative dolphin-safe labels should the strong current standard for dolphin-safe tuna be weakened.

The compromise legislation also specifies steps to be taken to reduce bycatch of non-target species such as sharks, billfish, and sea turtles. The Dolphin Death Act, whose authors claimed it was in part a response to bycatch, included no directives to reduce bycatch.

However, the new law authorizes the Commerce Secretary to lift tuna embargoes against countries whose fishermen still fish for yellowfin tuna using the dolphin-deadly practice of chasing and netting dolphins. It also mandates 18 months of National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) studies on the basis of which, the US Secretary of Commerce will determine the standards for dolphin-safe tuna. If the Commerce Secretary finds that the studies indicate that the three most depleted dolphin populations in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) suffer "no significant adverse impact" from tuna fishing, then a weakened dolphin-safe standard would go into effect. This would allow tuna caught with chase and capture of dolphins to qualify as dolphin-safe as long as an observer does not see any dolphins killed in the set. If the Secretary makes the preliminary finding that tuna fishing does indeed, as the best available scientific information indicates, cause "significant adverse impacts" on depleted dolphin populations, the dolphin-safe label standards for tuna will remain as currently written - no encirclement of dolphins with the deadly nets during the entire fishing trip.

Scientists and environmentalists alike are concerned that the the study time allotted is insufficient basis for even preliminary findings by the Secretary of Commerce. There is also concern that the new law's follow-up finding scheduled for December, 2002 will be based on studies too limited in scope to support a valid assessment of the impact of the return to purse seining on the depleted dolphin populations in the ETP. "We will not allow this study to translate into a de facto gutting of the dolphin-safe label," warned Earth Island Institute's Executive Director David Phillips. "A one-year study of dolphin populations will be unlikely to detect anything. Further, to suggest that a technique that has caused seven million dolphin deaths during the past four decades could be considered "dolphin-safe" is ludicrous." Earth Island will strenuously oppose any backdoor label change which deceives US consumers by putting dolphin-deadly tuna on US supermarket shelves with a fraudulent 'dolphin-safe' label."

Starting immediately, US consumers need to pay close attention to the presence and absence of dolphin-safe labeling on tuna. In the spring of 1998, dolphin-deadly tuna could begin turning up on US supermarket shelves. This dolphin-unsafe tuna will not be permitted to carry a dolphin-safe label and should be avoided by consumers. Such dolphin-deadly tuna could also make a return via inconspicuous, bulk sales to institutions such as hotels, schools, and restaurant chains. "Consumers have made it irrevocably clear that they do not want dolphin-deadly tuna, and we are committed to informing the public as to which brands are caught by harming dolphins and which brands are truly dolphin-safe," states Phillips.


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