Save the Dolphins

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THE destruction of thousands of sea-birds, otters, and other wildlife following the Alaskan oil spill caused righteous outrage among many people. The animals were innocent, and their deaths - the result of a highly visible accident - were senseless and tragic. What to do, then, when animals just as innocent - and far more intelligent and scarce - are legally killed every day, and nobody seems to notice?

We are speaking of the ongoing slaughter of the oceanic dolphin in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) - a by-product of a controversial method of fishing for giant yellowfin tuna called ``purse seining.''

It seems that yellowfin travel the ocean just underneath packs of spotted, spinner, and common dolphins. Purse-seining fisherman spot schools of dolphins playing on the surface, and herd them into nets that close at the bottom, trapping both dolphin and yellowfin.

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Most dolphins escape but many do not, and either are injured, drown - or are crushed when the net is hauled through a ``power block'' on the boat.

Back in the 1960s, when the nation was watching the beloved bottlenosed ``Flipper'' on TV, about 250,000 to 500,000 of Flipper's close (larger) cousins were dying each year in the ETP. After the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, deaths from US boats have slowly been reduced to a legal 20,500 a year. Stan Minasian, director of the Marine Mammal Fund, however, says most US boats simply reflagged under Mexican, Venezualan, Panamanian, and Ecuadorian registries.

These boats (and US boats fishing at night) regularly break agreements between the US and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission. A major July Atlantic Monthly article describes biologist Sam LaBudde, who filmed, under pretext, illegal dolphin slaughters on a Panamanian boat he randomly chose to ``work'' on.

The fishing crew often did not free dolphins from the net. They ``set on'' Costa Rican spinners - an almost extinct species. In one case the crew (on film) killed 200 dolphins to catch one tuna; 300 were killed for 10 tuna in another.

Killing intelligent mammals in order to harvest tuna is inhumane at least. Congress should stiffen enforcement and fines. Fines are now so low that many boats just accept them. The harrassment of federal observers should be penalized. Congress should also revist the question of oulawing purse-sein fishing. Dolphins are killed because they legally can be.

What's especially frustrating is that 95 percent of the world's tuna are caught by other fishing methods. Between 40 and 90 percent of the yellowfin tuna are caught by purse seining. Fishing boats prefer yellowfin because a catch of big fish commands $400 more per ton than the smaller skipjack tuna.

Tuna reproduce rapidly; dolphins do not. A number of species in the ETP are close to extinction.

The killing of oceanic dolphin constitutes the greatest slaughter of marine mammals on earth. It can stop. Twenty years after legislation seeking to eliminate all dolphin killing, it ought to.

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