MEXICO CITY — Just when it looks possible to eat tuna in good conscience again, along come government officials and environmental groups telling consumers they'd better think twice about the shrimp they eat.
The United States Congress is considering legislation to ease a six-year-old embargo on so-called "dolphin-deadly tuna" because of substantial progress in reducing the number of dolphins killed by tuna fishermen around the globe. Mexican canned tuna - among the least expensive in the world - would be allowed to enter the US again.
But shrimp lovers, take note: On May 1, a different US embargo goes into effect on all sea-harvested shrimp from countries that do not require devices on shrimpers' nets to preserve the world's dwindling sea turtle population.
Shrimp consumers may notice little change in availability or price at first because much of the shrimp imported to the US is pond-raised and would not be affected. In addition, some major exporters of sea-caught shrimp, like Mexico and Indonesia, already enforce turtle-safe fishing methods to US satisfaction.
But another campaign is winding up, this one among international environmental organizations, which is likely to make eating shrimp in the 1990s what eating tuna became in the '80s before "dolphin-safe" tuna-fishing methods were enforced - an environmentally irresponsible act.
Today, a "shrimp tribunal" opens at the United Nations in New York to discuss the adverse effects of both shrimp fishing and shrimp farming on the global environment. Following the tribunal, environmental organizations from 16 countries will meet tomorrow to decide whether to organize an international consumer boycott of all shrimp, fished or farmed.
"Consumers don't generally know that the shrimp industry is one of the least sustainable and most polluting in the world," says Kate Cissna, field coordinator for the Earth Island Institute's Mangrove Action Project in Seattle.
Aside from killing sea turtles, shrimpers' fine nets dredge coastal fisheries, catch tons of fish that are discarded as waste - an average of 10 pounds for every pound of shrimp caught - and catch so much shrimp larvae that a steep decline in the stock is occurring around the world, says Ms. Cissna.
But current shrimp-farming methods are no better, she adds. Conversion of coastal areas to shrimp ponds is destroying biologically diverse breeding grounds, and the ponds' highly saline and chemically treated water is generally dumped directly into adjacent estuaries, causing salinization of water supplies and other pollution.
With the US importing $3 billion in shrimp annually, any consumer action on shrimp could have important repercussions. "This is much bigger than the tuna-dolphin issue," says Todd Steiner of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project in San Francisco, "because shrimp imports are about 10 times the value of tuna. The potential for impact on imports is significant."
Thailand, for example, the largest shrimp exporter to the US, is not likely to be "certified" May 1 as a "turtle-safe" shrimper. Nor is No. 2 Ecuador. Both countries export mostly pond-raised shrimp, but an embargo on the 10 percent sea-caught shrimp they export to the US would still reduce their sales by about 27 million pounds, Mr. Steiner says.
Antonio Caro Snchez, whose family owns a shrimp-processing plant in Mazatln, Mexico, says shrimp-producing countries that lose US sales because of the new embargo are likely to simply turn to other markets. "In Mexico, we're already requiring the turtle-excluder devices that let captured turtles swim out of the net, so I guess we're safe. Other countries may just sell to Europe or Asia."
It may not be so easy to hide, however. Some 300 Swedish environmental groups have already organized a national "consumer- awareness program" to convince Swedes they should not eat shrimp. Cissna says something similar on an international scale, if not a full-blown boycott, is likely to come out of the New York meeting. In addition, Greenpeace is set to begin a campaign against shrimp aquaculture in January 1997, and Sierra Club Canada plans a campaign on shrimp to begin this fall.
Mexican shrimp fishermen are unhappy with the required turtle-saving devices - a kind of escape hatch on shrimpers' long "purse" nets - because they also let out a large number of shrimp, Mr. Sanchez says. Then there's the cost: The average boat requires six turtle excluders, or TEDs, costing 2,000 pesos each (about $275, or $1,650 to equip a boat).
But the fishermen have made the investment, Sanchez says, because they don't want to find themselves banned from the lucrative US market the way tuna fishermen were.
More than 4,000 tuna fishermen and related industry workers were left unemployed by the US tuna embargo that began in 1990, according to Mexican officials. The embargo, which cost Mexico more than $50 million annually in lost tuna exports, affects other countries including Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Italy, and Japan.
Now the Clinton administration, joined by some members of both major parties in Congress, says it is time to acknowledge that tremendous progress has been made in tuna-fishing methods to reduce dolphin deaths and to ease the embargo.
The slaughter of 500,000 dolphins annually in tuna nets in the 1980s resulted in the embargo and in "dolphin-safe" labeling on tuna products caught in ways that didn't cause dolphin deaths.
Those deaths have shrunk to less than 5,000 annually, according to the administration, as countries like Mexico adopt fishing methods much less lethal for the dolphins that often swim along with tuna schools.
Despite a recent House subcommittee's favorable vote, however, the move to ease the embargo and allow countries like Mexico to export tuna to the US again faces hurdles.
A SENATE subcommittee on oceans and fisheries is to take up the embargo tomorrow. A final congressional vote may not take place for two months.
Some congressional Democrats say the easing is a sellout to "dolphin killers" in the interest of trade relations; environmental groups are split on the issue.
"In no way can we ring the bells and declare we've already won the victory," Mexican Environment Minister Julia Carabias said after the US House subcommittee vote. "We may be in the most delicate moment."
Mexico has pushed for years for an end to the embargo.
The State Department says that under the proposed embargo change US consumers would still be able to buy "dolphin-safe" labeled tuna with the assurance that the tuna was caught without causing dolphin deaths.
Turtle proponent Steiner says preservationists and industry in the US are working on a similar "turtle safe" shrimp-labeling program. Other environmentalists worry, however, that such a label would lull consumers into thinking that eating shrimp was generally environmentally friendly.