A Dolphin-Safe Label That Really Means It

What's in a label? Well, if you have eaten tuna in the past five years, take note: the "dolphin-safe" label you have grown to trust is neither as dolphin-safe nor ecologically- sound as you may think. Our nation's landmark dolphin protection and product labeling laws have resulted in unintended consequences which have actually exacerbated some marine resource problems, while failing to guarantee that dolphins were not killed when harvesting your tuna.The campaign to save dolphins had all the right intentions. Combined with the 25-year effort to enact and strengthen the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the campaign educated the public about a serious problem. Since its passage in 1972, the MMPA went on to spur a reduction in dolphin mortalities in the Eastern Tropical Pacific ocean (ETP) from as many as 600,000 a year to fewer than 5,000 by 1994.The effort to continue this success culminated in the passage of dolphin-safe laws in 1990 and 1992 which contained three basic elements; criteria for the use of a "dolphin-safe" label (including prohibition of use of the label for tuna caught by encircling dolphins in the ETP), phase out of encircling dolphins by the U.S. tuna fleet in the ETP, and the phase-in of a ban on the sale of dolphin unsafe tuna in the U.S. by June, 1994.A program was developed through voluntary cooperation of the fishing countries to enforce this new scheme which placed independent observers on every boat. These principles were the backbone of what American consumers recognize as the "dolphin- safe" label.More than three years later, however, the failings of the law are evidenced not only in the continuing deaths of dolphins, but of the damage to the ocean ecosystem as a whole. To understand why this destruction of marine life persists, it is necessary to examine the shortcomings of the law -- and the recent and most promising attempt to address these problems on an international level, the Panama Declaration.At the root of the problem is the fact that while tuna is caught around the world, U.S. dolphin protection laws are applicable only in the ETP. As strong as the laws may be, they do not uniformly apply in other regions, which yield as much as 80 percent of the world's tuna. Unfortunately, this policy is based on the unproven assumption that tuna outside the ETP do not migrate with marine mammals. Hence, tuna sold in the U.S. caught in other oceans are also afforded the "dolphin-safe" label, without visual proof of its veracity.Furthermore, the "dolphin-safe" label only means that no dolphins were "encircled" by fishing nets in the ETP; it does not mean that no dolphins or other marine mammals were harmed or killed during tuna harvests. The prohibition of dolphin encirclement by American vessels in the ETP sparked a mass exodus of more than 95 percent of the U.S. fleet. Most vessels headed for the Western Pacific, while some fishers simply sold their boats to citizens of other nations. So while few if any recent dolphin deaths are attributable to U.S. tuna vessels, these deaths continue in regions where U.S. law is irrelevant.Disallowing encirclement of dolphins, with whom adult tuna migrate, put fishermen in the position of focusing their effort on juvenile tuna which tend to congregate near shore in schools, or under floating debris such as logs. This breaks the cardinal rule of successful fisheries management: harvesting only mature fish which have spawned at least once. Biologists are concerned that a currently well-managed, healthy fishery would begin to decline if efforts continue to focus on young tuna.Equally alarming is a Greenpeace study showing that methods considered "dolphin-safe" under U.S. law have resulted in hundreds of thousands of pounds of by-catch (incidental harvest) of other species. Sharks, sea turtles, other fish, and yes, even dolphins, congregate with juvenile tuna and are unavoidably killed in the fishery. From an ecosystem perspective, this is intolerable.So what needs to be done to protect dolphins? Switching from one fishing method to another in a small section of the world's ocean has not solved the problem. And simply shutting down the tuna fishery altogether would threaten the survival of fishing communities and the ability to feed a growing world population. Tuna is the leading seafood product consumed in America, and a renewable protein source for poor and low-income persons the world over.Unilateral embargoes by the U.S. alone have also proved unable to save the world's dolphins. Indeed, the unilateral embargo on imports of "dolphin-unsafe" tuna eventually led to a trade dispute under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).Clearly, there has long been a need for a strong international approach. Recognizing this, international negotiators began developing an alternative, multilateral agreement which put observers on all tuna vessels fishing in the ETP, regardless of nationality and method of fishing. That program also sets progressively declining caps on dolphin mortality with further annual reductions toward zero dolphin deaths required for all countries.This plan has now been strengthened and extended in a recent accord known as the "Panama Declaration." Supported by Greenpeace, the Seafarers International Union (SIU), the Clinton administration and a growing contingent in Congress, this accord takes a significant step towards achieving the twin goals of saving dolphins and other marine species from extinction while insuring a sustainable and healthy tuna fishery.Hammered out through difficult negotiations between government representatives, environmentalists, and fishermen, this agreement would legally bind countries to require mandatory enforcement measures and reporting internationally, while rewarding fishermen who do not kill dolphins. The agreement also would set the goal of reducing dolphin deaths to zero and brings many new boats under a regulatory framework to reduce by-catch of all marine species.To take the next step, U.S. laws on dolphin-safe labeling requirements must be rewritten in accord with the Panama Declaration. Also, the current unilateral embargo must be replaced with internationally agreed upon enforcement measures which allow the U.S. to impose trade sanctions on nations failing to live up to their commitment to dolphins. Congress is now considering these changes.Greenpeace and the SIU strongly opposed passage of the NAFTA and GATT treaties last year. We believed then as now that those agreements fundamentally weaken a nation's ability to pass and enforce strong environmental, health, safety, and labor protection laws.At the same time, many environmental crises know no borders, and the unnecessary killing of marine mammals is one such crisis. One country acting alone cannot save the oceans and protect their bounty. Once we succeed in getting governments and fishermen to agree to a goal of zero dolphin deaths, we will achieve real truth in labeling, and more importantly, a package dolphins can truly live with.

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