Hope for the Dolphins

SORRY, Charlie: Now even tasting good isn't enough. As of last week, Star-Kist and two other leading tuna brands only want tuna that's ``dolphin-safe'' - harvested without using the purse-sein fishing method that traps and kills the oceanic dolphins that team with giant yellowfin tuna in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Yellowfin make up 25 percent of the US tuna catch. About 90,000 dolphins a year die in tuna harvests.

The three corporations taking this step - H.J. Heinz, Van Camp, and Bumble Bee - are, on the face of it at least, to be applauded. More credit, however, is due environmentally conscious US consumers and activists who've been pressuring the tuna industry for years. To kill highly intelligent marine mammals is at least inhumane. To do it when other sources of tuna are available, as they are, is tragic.

There are some details to clear up. The corporations have not been specific about their methods of assuring dolphin-safe tuna. Abuse is possible. Boats in the US fleet all carry government observers who will report dolphin kills. But only 40 percent of foreign vessels carry observers, and these boats account for 65 percent of the haul. If Panamanian or Venezuelan boats show up with a big catch of giant yellowfin, how are buyers to know dolphins weren't ``set on''?

Why didn't the companies simply come out and say they aren't buying large yellowfin from the Eastern Pacific until methods change? (Dolphins don't cavort with younger, smaller yellowfin.) If consumers are to pay more for ``dolphin-free'' tuna, as the companies project, these questions need answering.

The US fleet will have to adjust. Scuttlebut has it that many boats will move to the Western Pacific.

Nor is there any certainty that other national fleets with purse-seining capabilities won't now exploit the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Asian markets are very competitive. Like whaling, the issue may have to become a priority for international negotiations.

It's too early to know how effective the new measures will be. In the meantime, more dolphins can live and play. We're glad.

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