NOAA Tracking Program Verifies Truth of “Dolphin-Safe” Label

Written by on March 16, 2010 in Marine Life, Policy & Ocean Law

We’ve all seen the “dolphin-safe” labels on the tuna products we buy, but how do we know if that tuna was actually caught in a dolphin-safe way?  NOAA Fisheries Service’s Sustainable Fisheries Division operates the Tuna Tracking and Verification Program (TTVP) designed to determine the truthfulness of the “dolphin-safe” labels on tuna products.  This year, the National Marine Fisheries Service Southwest Regional Office in Long Beach, California, created a way to involve school children in a tuna tracking program.

Tuna caught in purse seine. Credit: NOAA

Tuna caught in purse seine. Credit: NOAA

In collaboration with NOAA’s Office of Education, the Fisheries Service launched a pilot program in which volunteer students from six Texas schools (middle school to high school) purchased canned and pouched tuna from their local stores and sent them back to the TTVP for verification. All samples checked confirmed that the dolphin-safe claims made on the merchandise were true.

“This project benefits both NOAA and students,” said Bill Jacobson, coordinator for this new program. “It saves NOAA the expense of having to send employees on travel to collect the tuna samples, and it provides students an opportunity to learn about the fishery as well as to have a direct impact on an important national monitoring process – even though they may live a thousand miles from the ocean.”

Marianne Garcia, of Lockhart, Texas, came up with the idea of offering extra credit to each of her students who purchased samples. The class then chose four of those samples and sent them to the TTVP, donating the rest to a local food bank.   “This project not only provided a way for students to learn about the meaning of  ‘dolphin-safe’ and why it’s important, but was also an opportunity to tie into lessons about how tuna and other food goes from its source to the store,” said Garcia. “Many of the kids had never really made that connection before.”

Based on the success of this pilot project, Jacobson hopes the partnership with schools will be expanded to other locations across the country.  “This can be a win-win situation for all involved,” he said.

In the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, dolphins and tuna often swim together in closely packed schools.  Since the dolphins are the ones who swim near the surface, fishermen normally look for dolphin schools, knowing that they will find tuna underneath them.  Once they’ve located a school they set a purse seine, a huge net, that will encircle the school of tuna and dolphins.  The dolphins are then freed in a process called “backdown.”  This involves a 15-30 minute pause in the fishing operation when the fishing boat stops and begins to draw in the net.  The boat then slowly “backs down” on the net which causes part of it to sink, creating a channel through which the dolphins can escape.  For many of the dolphins, this process is too stressful.

Dolphins at the top of the purse seine. Credit: NOAA

Dolphins at the top of the purse seine. Credit: NOAA

Because of the unique bond between tuna and dolphins found only in these tropical waters, and the purse seine fishery it supports, protecting dolphin stocks has become a priority for the United States.  As a result, the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act was passed in 1990 which included a mandate to establish a national tuna tracking program.  While the internationally accepted definition of dolphin-safe is “tuna caught in sets in which dolphins are not killed or seriously injured,” the U.S. definition is more restrictive.  It requires that “no tuna were caught on the trip in which such tuna were harvested using a purse seine net intentionally deployed on or to encircle dolphins, and that no dolphins were killed or seriously injured in the sets in which the tuna were caught.”

Further information on the Tuna Tracking and Verification Program and the tuna-dolphin issue can be found on NOAA’s web site.

Copyright ©  2010 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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