‘Dolphin Safe’ Tuna Isn’t All That Safe

Written by on April 29, 2013 in Fish, Policy & Ocean Law, Whales & Dolphins
What does that 'dolphin safe' label really tell you?

Canned tuna. Photo credit: Daniel Case.

If you’ve ever bought a can of tuna in the United States then you’ve seen that ‘dolphin safe‘ label that assures you no dolphins were killed or harmed in the process of catching that tuna. What if you found out that only about five percent of that canned tuna actually comes from a fishery where dolphin mortality rates are strictly regulated and the rest comes from fisheries with no such regulations?

As it turns out, that’s pretty much how it works now.

A Brief History of Dolphin-Safe Tuna in the United States

In the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico and Central America, yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) are often found swimming with many different species of dolphins. This unique association isn’t well understood, but we have learned a great deal about the consequences of it: successful tuna fisheries are often associated with incredibly high levels of dolphin mortality.

The bycatch of dolphins in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) Ocean specifically was the highest because fishermen used to intentionally capture both tuna and dolphins and then attempt to release the dolphins from the net. However, release wasn’t always successful and the stress alone often caused serious damage.

Since the ETP tuna fishery began in the 1950s, it is estimated that over six million dolphins have been killed as a result, making it the highest known mortality rate for any fishery in the world.

In the 1980s, tuna fishing in the ETP resulted in the death of more than 100,000 dolphins annually. In the 1990s, after this information reached the public, the U.S. government imposed an embargo on tuna imports caught with purse seine nets in the ETP and prevented the use of the “dolphin-safe” label for tuna caught this way.

This resulted in a migration of the majority of the U.S. tuna fishing fleet. Most vessels left the ETP to fish in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean where these new rules didn’t apply. (That tuna is still being sold in the U.S. as “dolphin safe” but we’ll get to that in a bit.)

The vessels that stayed in the ETP developed new gear and fishing methods and created a system that required an independent observer onboard to certify that no dolphins were killed or seriously injured in the process. Today, dolphin deaths are closer to about 1,000 per year which is much better, but still one of the highest levels of cetacean bycatch in the world.

Current Meaning of “Dolphin Safe”

Mark Robertson, President of Potomac Global, has over 20 years of experience on the dolphin-safe tuna issue and took the time to explain the current situation to MST.

The current U.S. “dolphin-safe” policy certifies that no dolphins were killed or seriously injured in ETP tuna fisheries. For all tuna caught in the ETP, an independent scientific observer onboard must certify that purse seine nets were not set on dolphins and that no dolphins were killed or seriously injured, Robertson explained. The observer prepares and submits detailed radio and written reports that include all activities onboard that vessel, including information on any encircled dolphins, if the Captain performed all possible measures to release any captured dolphins without harm, and any issues or gear malfunctions. The tuna is monitored by government officials while it’s unloaded and it must be stored and processed separately from non-ETP tuna.

The problem is that none of those regulations exist outside the ETP. For most other tuna fisheries, only the ship’s Captain has to certify that no dolphins were killed or harmed, meaning there is simply no guarantee about what actually happened. This is a troubling issue for those eating canned tuna in the U.S., because more than 95% of that tuna sold in the US today comes from non-ETP fisheries, Robertson explained, and we have no guarantees about dolphin morality rates from those fisheries.

Although, “In Eastern Atlantic, NOAA’s own studies say that upwards of 30,000 dolphins a year are killed in tuna fisheries,” Robertson said, “but it’s all dolphin safe.”

Dolphins still often get caught in tuna fishing nets.

Dolphins still often get caught in tuna fishing nets. Photo credit: NOAA.

Why is this important now?

Because both consumers and other fishing vessels are suffering from the poorly defined meaning of “dolphin safe.”

Right now, you could purchase a can of tuna with the “dolphin safe” label and because over 95 percent of it comes from non-ETP tuna fisheries, you can almost guarantee that can is associated with high dolphin mortality rates.

Let’s rewind a bit.

In 1995, the U.S., Mexico and several other nations signed the Panama Declaration which was designed to strengthen the protection of dolphins and required the U.S. to change “dolphin-safe” to refer to tuna harvested without killing any dolphins, regardless of how the tuna was caught. The new definition was never made official, leaving other nations that signed the Panama Declaration to feel that the U.S. had not fulfilled its requirements.

After trying many ways to resolve this issue, Mexico brought the case to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2009, stating that the U.S. failed to meet its obligations under the Panama Declaration and that the “dolphin-safe” label requirements are discriminatory and unevenly applied.

In 2012, after a full review of all available evidence, the WTO ruled in favor of Mexico, stating that the “dolphin-safe” tuna standards established by Congress in 1990 are now outdated and deceptive to U.S. consumers, as it does not provide information about dolphin mortalities from any of the world’s tuna fisheries other than those in the ETP.

NOAA has a few months left to comply with the WTO ruling and they recently released draft changes for “dolphin safe” label requirements. This sounds like good news, but unfortunately, NOAA’s proposed changes to the “dolphin-safe” labeling standards don’t actually change much.

Carefully worded, the proposed rule would require only the captain to certify that no dolphins were harmed or killed in the process — an observer would only be required “where applicable” — leaving the same amount of uncertainty as before. It also wouldn’t change labeling requirements for tuna caught outside the ETP so nothing would change for the 95+ percent of tuna from non-ETP fisheries.

Check back for updates as the July deadline approaches.

To learn more, check out some of these links:

Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. 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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