Dolphin-Safe Standard Revised for Tuna Fishers

Yesterday Congress lifted the embargo on fishermen who temporarily snag, but don't kill, dolphins

Is it possible that your grade-schooler's lunchbox has anything to do with a major trade and environmental issue? Yes, if the menu regularly includes tuna fish sandwiches along with the juice box and carrot sticks.

In recent years, kids have been inspecting household grocery bags to make sure that cans of tuna are labeled "dolphin safe," meaning none of the intelligent and marine mammals they love were hauled up in fishing nets. Many chastened parents have been trained by their offspring to buy accordingly.

Now, Congress is moving to change United States policy on an issue that seems clear-cut but in fact is full of ecological and political complexities.

The environmental sensitivities of Americans, who eat more tuna than people in any other country do, have gotten in the way of international trade agreements. Mexico has complained that the 1992 US embargo on tuna not deemed "dolphin safe" violates the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade by imposing a single country's law. With the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other trade measures, such disagreements could become commonplace.

In an attempt to ease diplomatic tensions, the Senate (with the Clinton administration's blessing) Wednesday approved a compromise to lift the embargo while keeping the "dolphin safe" designation. A similar bill passed by the House is expected to be adjusted to match the Senate's.

This allows the temporary capture of some dolphins in tuna nets as long as the dolphins are not killed or seriously injured. Independent observers aboard tuna boats are to see that dolphins are not harmed, and a three-year scientific study will track any changes in dolphin populations.

"It's an agreement that really is a strong one," says Barbara Dudley, senior adviser to Greenpeace. The World Wildlife Fund, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Center for Marine Conservation also are comfortable with the policy change.

In an unusual and contentious split with their ideological brethren, however, other environmental and animal-rights groups are fighting the change, among them the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Cousteau Society.

"The worst thing about the bill is that it legitimizes a disastrous method of fishing," says Christopher Croft, a biologist who spent four years as an observer aboard Pacific tuna fishing boats for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The eastern Pacific tuna fishery stretches over an area several times the size of the US - from California out to Hawaii, south to the equator and back to Chile. It's unique in that yellowfin tuna there tend to hang out with dolphins. Scientists aren't sure why, but suspect it's related to how the ocean is layered by temperature.

Tuna fishing boats in these international waters, accompanied by speed boats and helicopters, herd the dolphins and tuna into mile-long purse-seine nets.

Tuna fishers from Mexico and other Central and South American countries claim to have been more careful about protecting dolphins in recent years. And according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (a US government agency) "dolphin mortalities have been reduced approximately 98 percent, from hundreds of thousands each year to about 3,000 in 1996."

US Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine, one of the leaders in formulating the new tuna-dolphin policy on Capitol Hill, says the measure "represents a very strong step toward preservation and conservation of the species."

But critics say observers on foreign boats may be undercounting dolphin mortalities - either because it's so difficult to conduct such a count or because they're being pressured or bribed to do so. They note that two dolphin stocks exploited by tuna fishermen - eastern spinner dolphins and northern offshore spotted dolphins - remain far below historic levels. And they're concerned that repeatedly chasing dolphins in order to net their tuna sidekicks is bad for the sea mammals.

'JUST the very practice of herding and corralling dolphins for hours with speedboats, helicopters, and tuna boats - driving them over miles of sea to exhaust them, to force them to submit to capture in nets - does not seem to me to be what most Americans would consider to be dolphin-safe," says Mr. Croft, the former tuna boat observer who now represents Friends of the Earth on the issue.

But even some who have argued against the change see the possibility of a proper balance between environmental protection and resolution of trade differences.

"At least we'll now attempt to come up with a truly science-based dolphin-protection standard for tuna," says William Snape, legal director for Defenders of Wildlife in Washington. "The problem with trade and environment is that environmental standards end up being influenced by short-term trade pressures. The dividing line is the integrity of the science."

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