ONE of the sharpest criticisms of the environmental movement is that it is forever emphasizing major ecological ailments while refusing to acknowledge even the slightest environmental progress.
Make no mistake, the magnitude of the world's environmental challenges is as immense as it is ominous. Yet in only a flash of human history, we have begun to take on these challenges. There are successes about which we can be optimistic; and they demonstrate that reason and resolve, partnership and passion, can get the better of dangerous ecological trends.
Almost 10 years ago, horrific footage of dolphins being slaughtered in large numbers drove home the need for efforts to prevent dolphin mortality in the tuna fishing industry. Having adopted a Marine Mammal Protection Act for domestic fishing operations, the US began working with international partners through the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), with the aim of reducing dolphin mortality. Congress also enacted legislation that included a domestic ban on the sale of tuna not caught in a manner deemed ''dolphin safe.''
The results: Dolphin mortality has been virtually eliminated, cut by more than 90 percent in what is known as the Eastern Tropical Pacific tuna fishery. This dramatic decline in dolphin mortality is attributable to American leadership and international cooperation. The IATTC has evolved into one of the best and most rigorously enforced conservation regimes in the world.
It's time the United States and all conservationists recognize the enormous drop in dolphin mortality, strengthen this international program, and set the stage for further progress. To do this we must reopen our market to trade in tuna with cooperative nations in the hemisphere.
Fortunately, last fall a coalition of environmental groups and Latin American countries reached an agreement in Panama that will accomplish these goals. The ''Panama Declaration,'' endorsed by Greenpeace, the Center for Marine Conservation, the Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, and the World Wildlife Fund, is a model agreement not only for international cooperation, but also as a way to acknowledge our accomplishments even as we aim to do better in the future.
The Panama Declaration sets a goal of eliminating dolphin mortality altogether, establishes a binding program to protect a wide variety of species throughout the Eastern Tropical Pacific ecosystem, and requires that internationally trained observers are on all tuna vessels, as well as additional measures to ensure compliance.
The US will enable the Panama agreements to take effect by reopening the US market to tuna caught in compliance with the IATTC program, lifting the tuna embargo, and requiring that labels for ''dolphin safe'' tuna define fish caught without incidental deaths of dolphins. A bipartisan coalition - led by Sens. John Breaux (D) of Louisiana and Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska - has introduced legislation to implement these agreements, and the Clinton administration is working with Congress to ensure their immediate passage.
Gains of this magnitude in the conservation of marine mammals are difficult enough for one nation to achieve. Brokering resolution to these challenges on an international scale is far more challenging. It means persuading other nations, particularly those less fortunate than our own, to sacrifice short-term political and economic interests in the name of long-term ecological and economic health. This is particularly true with dolphin conservation. Without the Panama Declaration, most observers say, the IATTC will collapse.
There are some environmental organizations who understandably say we should aim for an even higher moral standard, one where no dolphins are killed during tuna fishing (the Panama agreements would allow incidental deaths totalling less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all dolphins in the Eastern Tropical Pacific). Yet the Panama Declaration is more than a moral victory. It celebrates an environmental success story and rewards international partners for their cooperation and commitment in conserving marine mammals. It aims for no dolphin deaths in the future.
There is little alternative to the agreements signed in Panama. Countries throughout the hemisphere have made it clear they are losing patience with what they see as an unfair trade barrier - particularly in light of the progress made in reducing dolphin mortalities. If the US fails to take the steps necessary to implement the Panama Declaration, these countries intend to return to fishing methods that kill more dolphins.
At a time when our environmental laws and commitments are under attack, it is essential that we consolidate gains made in protecting the global environment. It's time to declare victory with swift congressional enactment of legislation that will implement the Panama Declaration.