ETP Bycatch Issue Misused By Opponents of Dolphin-Safe Fishing

-- Bycatch Would Increase if Dolphin-Safe Fishing is Abandoned in ETP Tuna Fishery

Claims that the "bycatch" by tuna fishermen using dolphin-safe techniques in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) is excessive and "out of control" are not tenable. Instead, these claims are based on inadequate information and misuse of existing data. In fact, just the opposite is true -- dolphin safe restrictions have decreased the ETP bycatch, and enactment of the "Panama Declaration" would increase bycatch of fish species, sea turtles, and dolphins.

H.R. 2179 (Cunningham) and the "Panama Declaration" implementing legislation would undeniably weaken U.S. dolphin protection laws, yet supporters justify a return to dolphin unsafe fishing practices by claiming it would reduce bycatch. The Center for Marine Conservation, World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Environmental Defense Fund all rely on the bycatch issue to justify their support for weakening U.S. dolphin safe laws.

However, the facts do not support this argument:

1. Total ETP Bycatch is Less Now than Before the Implementation of Dolphin-Safe Policies

Both dolphin and fish bycatch has been reduced significantly compared with the levels experienced in the 1970's and 1980's. Many vessels have left the tuna fishery of the ETP, as a result of both general economics as well as due to dolphin protection restrictions. Therefore total ETP sets (including sets on logs and on schools of tuna) have decreased significantly.

For example, according to the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), the number of vessels in the ETP has declined from 132 vessels (126,045 tons capacity) in 1974 to 99 vessels (102,951 tons capacity) in 1994, a 25% reduction. Furthermore, in 1974, there were 7,759 sets on dolphins, 3,384 sets on floating objects, and 7,466 sets on schools of tuna, while in 1994 there were 5,948 sets on dolphins, only 1,750 sets on floating objects, and only 5,786 sets on schools of tuna. Dolphin sets have decreased 23.2%, log sets have decreased by 48.3%, and school sets have decreased by 22.6% in the past twenty years.

Even in the past five years, since the major tuna companies enacted dolphin-safe policies, the number of log sets is down by 32%, while the number of school sets is down by 19.5%, according to IATTC data.

Specifically as a result dolphin safe policies and economic conditions, sets on floating objects and on schools of tuna have substantially decreased in the 1990's in the ETP.

2. ETP Purse-Seine Fishing Has Low Bycatch Compared with other Fisheries Worldwide

A recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations ("A Global Assessment of Fisheries Bycatch and Discards", FAO Fisheries Technical Paper 339;1994) listed twenty top fisheries in the world with heavy bycatch.

The ETP purse-seine tuna fishery was not among them. The discard rates and total bycatch per ton of catch are far, far higher on a number of other fisheries around the world, including shrimp trawl fisheries, crab and lobster pot fisheries, high seas squid nets, and most trawl fisheries.

The ETP fishery is an extremely misplaced focus for concern on the worldwide bycatch problem.

3. The IATTC's Professed Concern About Bycatch is Phony

In its history, the IATTC has never instituted measures to limit bycatch. It has further failed to require the live release of sea turtles caught in purse seine nets.

If the IATTC were truly concerned with reducing bycatch, it could recommend requirements to curtail the number of in-shore log sets, where by far the highest bycatch occurs. The IATTC has completely failed to do so.

If the IATTC were truly concerned with reducing the tuna bycatch, they would institute area and time closures on log sets to protect the juvenile tuna, as is commonly done in other fisheries.

Further, none of the five environmental organizations, that have justified their proposal to weaken dolphin protection because of bycatch concerns, has advocated a limitation of the worst-bycatch inshore log sets.

Only when the IATTC determined it could use the bycatch issue to reverse progress on adoption of dolphin-safe practices, did it ever bring up the bycatch issue.

4. There is No Available Data to Suggest that Bycatch is Depleting Any Species, Except Dolphins.

In an August 31, 1995 letter to Rep. Gerry Studds, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stated that: "Quantitative estimates of bycatch ratios for non-dolphin, non-tuna bycatch must await cooperative analyses with the IATTC. While it is apparent that this bycatch includes a great number of individuals of a wide variety of fauna, it cannot be determined without comparative data on population levels whether the observed levels of bycatch are a problem for the populations involved."

With particular attention to bycatch of juvenile tuna, the NOAA letter continues: "...the analysis of NOAA data indicated that bycatch of small yellowfin from the international fleet may be on the order of 3-10 million fish per year. This sounds startling, until that bycatch is compared with the estimated annual recruitment of 98 million fish per year. On that basis, the bycatch does not seem excessive...'

If finfish bycatch was impacting ETP tuna stocks, one would expect to see a decline in tuna stock recruitment. In fact, although the IATTC has predicted a decline for the past several years, based on finfish bycatch rates, no reduction in tuna stocks has been reported. On the contrary, the IATTC has documented that yellowfin and skipjack tuna stocks in the ETP are in excellent condition.

By contrast, several stocks of dolphins in the ETP are currently listed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) as "depleted."

5. Claims that High Sea Turtle Kills are Intrinsic to ETP Purse Seining are Bogus

Several organizations, primarily Center for Marine Conservation, claim that they must support the return to setting nets on dolphins as a way of protecting endangered sea turtles.

This is a gross distortion of actual practice. First, the killing of sea turtles in the purse-seine fleet is totally dwarfed by the true culprit in sea turtle mortality, the shrimp trawling fleet.

By any standard, the shrimp fleet results in a sea turtle take at least 1000 times larger than the ETP tuna fleet.

Secondly, in the rare instances in which sea turtles are entangled in the ETP tuna fishery, the vast majority can be released alive.

Christopher Croft, a NMFS observer on tuna vessels for four years states: "In my entire four years on ETP tuna vessels, not once was a sea turtle drowned in the nets. The few sea turtles that were caught were only killed if the crews decided to kill them to eat them."

The IATTC has failed to release the data as to how many sea turtles per year were killed in the nets, not by the crews. As noted above, the IATTC has also failed to set any kind of regulation or recommendation that sea turtles be released alive or that inshore log sets be restricted in any way to avoid bycatch of turtles and other species.

6. Proponents of Bycatch Reduction in the ETP Fail to Follow Proper Science

Sound science dictates that bycatch reduction should focus on the protection of species with the lowest reproductive potential.

In the ETP, that is, without question, the dolphin populations. The IATTC's reprise of "what about the baby tuna?" is spurious.

The ETP tunas and other pelagic species of finfish (mahi mahi, rainbow runners, billfish, trigger fish, etc.) have extremely high reproductive potentials compared with dolphins.

Two of the principle dolphin stock targets have been demonstrated to be severely depleted -- far below any depletion level demonstrated for species with far higher ability to recover. The Northeastern offshore spotted dolphin is at only 23% of its initial population -- and shows signs of continued decline. The Eastern Spinner dolphin is at only 44% of its initial population. Allowing a return to the killing of these populations in order to reduce finfish bycatch is hardly an acceptable environmental trade-off.

A proposal, such as the "Panama Declaration," that allows higher bycatch of severely depleted dolphin populations as a method of reducing fish bycatch, is scientifically indefensible.

7. Weakening Dolphin-Safe Restrictions, as Proposed, Would Actually Increase the Total ETP Bycatch.

The "Panama Declaration," and its implementing legislation, would increase bycatch because it would attract more vessels back to the ETP.

U.S. vessels currently operating in the Western Tropical Pacific would be free to return to set nets on dolphins, floating objects and schools of tuna.

By lifting embargoes and opening lucrative U.S. markets to tuna caught by chasing and netting dolphins, in which no dolphins are "observed" killed, a new a major incentive would be provided for more vessels to enter the international fleet.

Even if vessels and countries comply with IATTC Dolphin Mortality Limits (DML), when these vessels reach the allowable DML limits, they will then fish for the remainder of the year setting on schools and logs, resulting in increased bycatch.

Implementation of the "Panama Declaration" risks a situation that is both worse for dolphins and worse for other bycatch species.

In conclusion, the claims that the bycatch in the ETP tuna fishery are damaging the ecosystems of the ETP are without merit.

Weakening U.S. dolphin-safe laws would further penalize the species with the lowest reproductive potential and would create conditions that would likely increase the ETP bycatch.

The IATTC has failed to implement available methods of reducing ETP finfish and sea turtle bycatch without sacrificing dolphins.


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