Sharon Ryals Tamm, a volunteer, skilled writer, and frequent blogger for the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), interviewed David Phillips, Executive Director of Earth Island Institute and Director of IMMP, in July 2018. This is Part 1 of the Interview.
Sharon Ryals Tamm (Sh): One of the things I’ve noticed about you is that, whenever young people come to the office even just dropping by without notice, you are always extraordinarily interested in them and kind. You ask questions and want to know what they are doing—every time. Why does that matter to you so much?
Dave Phillips (D): That interest partly comes from how I came to Earth Island in the first place. That was through the inspiration of David Brower, founder of Earth Island Institute. Dave always had time for young people, and people with good ideas, and people who had sort of far-fetched ideas. He was always willing to talk about them and involve them and listen to them. In fact, Earth Island was really made around that model—a place that people could go if they had an idea and thought that they could manifest that idea within an organization.
Dave Brower had worked at lots of organizations, like the Sierra Club and other places that were getting a little bit ossified and bureaucratized. People would come into the Sierra Club, like from a foreign country where they’d heard about this incredible place, and they’d have their backpacks on. The Sierra Club would say—“Do you have an appointment?” And no they didn’t. So they’d say—Well you can, maybe, just check out some of the things in our bookstore. They were not much interested in asking visitors—what can we do to get you involved? Occasionally they might say—“Well, try checking over with Friends of the Earth.”
The thing Dave Brower liked doing best was getting out into colleges and giving talks, talking with people about what they could do, and with young people, inspiring them. So, I always feel that when people come in, and they’re eager and want to learn and want to know, we have a responsibility to help them understand what we’re doing and to try to do our best to see if they can plug in in some way.
Sh: When did you first connect with Brower?
D: I was in college, and I was very interested in the environment. I wanted a combination between biology and environmental protection. I was a Biology major at Colorado College, and I was out doing research in the field with endangered squirrels. At the same time, I saw so many scientists being disconnected from any sort of role in conservation. They were writing papers, publishing studies, but they were in this kind of veil of science, that science has to be so objective—“We don’t do activism. We just do the science”—and other people can use that science in whatever way they see fit.
Sh: Did it seem like the research was relevant to activism or conservation?
D: No, it wasn’t relevant to activism. It was cool that there were scientific studies of this and that, but I was interested in conservation as well. Then, out of nowhere, several people came to Colorado College. Amory Lovins, who was a Dave Brower disciple, was out in the field in Colorado, and he came to the college and gave a talk that I thought was incredible. He was mixing energy science with conservation.
Then we invited Dave Brower, and he came and spoke. And I thought—“That’s what I want to do!” I actually met up with Dave afterward, and he said—“Sure. Come out to Friends of the Earth in San Francisco.” It was funny later, because this was a common theme. Coming out to work at Friends of the Earth was a mixture between a fantasy of a job, maybe a job, or maybe just a little support from Dave along the side.
It wasn’t really a job job in the traditional sense. It was actually better than any job because here I was at ‘Brower University’. It was like a graduate program studying how you can take an idea and get involved and change the world.
Sh: I feel really emotional hearing this story. The Brower Model—that’s inspiring.
D: Yeah. People criticized Dave from time to time—“Dave was more interested in sitting with a group of college freshmen and just shooting the breeze, talking about how they can get involved than he was about fundraising or working with the board or the administration.” The things he was most energized by were the ideas of youth. So I try to carry some of that—nothing close to what he carried—but just carry that forward.
Amazing things come to us at Earth Island. You’ve seen some of them. The kids, who saw Free Willy and heard about Keiko’s story and then got involved with the effort for Keiko—they call us, years later, to say they’ve become marine biologists. Or their kids call us, and it’s still being passed down. They’re still seeing it as a way to change how people think about whales and dolphins. It’s very inspiring to see that and to see how those ideas come to fruition.
One of my favorite quotes from Dave Brower is, “What I like to do is be around bright young people and then stand back and bask in the glow of their accomplishments.” He liked nothing better than to inspire people to get involved and then watch what they become. Someone like Amory Lovins came up that way and became a world leader in energy conservation. And there are many others like that.
Sh: I love that answer. What are some things that have happened in the last 20 years, or, uh—how long have you been with Earth Island?
D: Since the beginning, since 1982.
Sh: And you were with Friends of the Earth in the 70’s?
D: I started in 1979.
Sh: What’s something you’ve been most proud of or excited by in all that time—both in how it came out and the process of getting to how it came out?
D: The ones that make me happy in general require really thinking into intractable problems. Now, most all of our problems are intractable, but some of the mega-problems where people got stuck just doing things the same way and nothing really changes, these are ones that we’ve found ways to dig in on.
Probably the most specific is the tuna-dolphin issue. Here we had a 3-billion-dollar tuna industry that was supporting the US fishing fleet and other foreign fleets, and they were chasing and setting nets on dolphins. They’d completely convinced the US Congress to give them a work-around to the Marine Mammal Protection Act that allowed them to continue killing dolphins and allowed foreign countries to import tuna into the US, all while killing dolphins. The legal quota was 20,500 dolphins killed every year, just by the US fleet. That plus the other countries’ quotas made about 100,000 dolphins killed every year, and it was completely codified in law.
Sh: All those quotas combined equaled 100,000 a year. So, does that mean they could have actually been killing even more than that?
D: Oh, yeah, they were killing way more than that. That was just the observed ones, and there was always misreporting. Many, many organizations were working on the issue, thinking—Gosh, how can we do anything about this? The Congress was completely locked down. Democrats, Republicans all supported this “fix” for the US tuna industry.
When we took it on, we heavily went after StarKist tuna, the largest tuna company in the world, with a pressure campaign. We started a very, very diverse campaign, because we realized it was going to take very different ways to solve this problem. It wasn’t going to be solved by trying to convince members of Congress to change the laws. It wasn’t going to work that way.
We helped Sam LaBudde to get out onto a tuna boat on an undercover mission. No one knew what it looked like out there. No one had seen images of dolphins being slaughtered. It was happening hundreds of miles out at sea, and there was no information. It was out of sight, out of mind. There wasn’t any way to get public eyes on it. This was Sam LaBudde’s heroic work. He asked—“Would you help me get out there with a video camera?” We thought—That’s going to be such a long shot, but yes, let’s try.
Sh: Really. Talk about far-fetched ideas.
D: Could this guy get down there and actually get a job on a tuna boat? That was one in a million. And if he did, what’s the chance he could ever video something and come back with it? So he went down to Mexico and called us and said, “I need a video camera by tomorrow because I got a job as a cook on a Panamanian tuna seiner and we’re leaving in four days.” We thought—Oh my God! And we got the camera to him.
Through his own incredible resourcefulness, Sam was able to use the video camera for filming birthday parties and crew gatherings and then, when things were happening out in the back-down channel where dolphins were being caught under net collapses and drowning and dying and being hauled up through the power block and being thrown dead overboard by the crew, he filmed that too. He’d say—“Oh, I’m just taking video to show my Dad what I’m doing on this job.”
So he gets back into port and calls us and says, “I got some good stuff, but I want to go back out again”. And we’re like—“Well, send us the stuff.” He had to Fed Ex us the videotape cassette, the original. There was no other copy.
When we watched this stuff, our mouths just dropped open. We called him up and said, “Do not go back out! We have everything here to tell the story in a way that’s never been told before.” We started blasting that video out. We showed it to Congress. We showed it on the nightly news. We showed it on Australian 60 Minutes.
At the same time, we were doing a canned tuna boycott. And, at the same time, we were doing a campaign to kids in their schools not to eat tuna sandwiches and to tell their parents and their schools—“No tuna. Take tuna off the school lunch menus.” We had all these different approaches. Then, we filed a lawsuit against the US government for allowing the dolphin slaughter.
Sh: So all these parts of the campaign happened pretty fast?
D: It was over a period of some years, but we stacked them one right after another, and then we added this massive pro-bono lawsuit that challenged a specific provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. That provision said foreign tuna companies couldn’t bring their tuna into the US unless they had “comparable environmental protection measures.” Right? The US was legally allowed to kill 20,500 dolphins per year, based on kills per set, which means per each time they deploy or set their nets. It turned out that the Mexican fleet had 3 to 5 times the level of kills per set than on the US boats. The US government was failing to enforce the law. They just let this deadly tuna come in and never did a damn thing. So we took them to court.
Sh: So this was a very small, very specific part of the law?
D: It was very small, but it had a big impact because the foreign companies were, by then, bigger than the US fleet, and they were killing 3 to 5 times as many dolphins. And that’s how you get up to the huge numbers of dolphins that were being killed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Sh: How did you find this one little legal component?
D: We had a really great law firm, Heller, Ehrman, White, and McAuliffe in San Francisco. We went to them and laid out every single argument we could think of for ways to go after the dolphin killing. They looked through the statute, and we looked through the statute. When we examined the issue of foreign fleets and what the comparability laws allowed and whether they were being enforced, this jumped out as the biggest part of the case.
It was a fantastic pro-bono firm. Josh Floum, the President of our current Earth Island Board of Directors, was a young lawyer then who worked on this case. That’s where he cut his teeth on environmental pro-bono work.
So all those things were pushing, pushing, pushing—the kids, the public pressure from the video getting out there, the lawsuit, the pressure on Congress to face what they’d been allowing. Instead of being able to keep it a secret, we showed them the video and testified before Congress.
Sh: You said you were putting pressure on StarKist too.
D: Yes, the largest tuna company in the world.
Sh: What kind of pressure?
D: We were pressing them by having a boycott; running full page ads in magazines and newspapers saying—“Don’t buy tuna!” We were putting pressure on their shareholders too.
And then one day, I was flying back from a trip to London, and I opened the in-flight magazine, and there was a big profile of Tony O’Reilly, the CEO of H.J. Heinz, which owned StarKist tuna. He was the head of the parent company. The whole article was about how it’s time for companies to be more socially responsible and more active. He was saying—“We have future generations to think about.”
Here’s this big poobah guy, a whole amazing character. And I think—Hunh! This is our guy! The tuna industry is a very status quo industry, but here was a guy who seemed like he had a vision. So we amped up the pressure on him. We wrote him letters, and eventually we helped a business leader meet with him.
Jerry Moss was the “M” of A&M Records, one of the largest record companies in the country. The “A” was Herb Alpert. They were A&M Records, and they had all the major hitsters from the 60’s and 70’s. Jerry’s wife, Ann Moss, is a fully committed dolphin protector. She convinced her husband to contact Tony O’Reilly, businessman to businessman. Jerry flew out to Pittsburgh, and they had a long lunch. They hit it off, and both did a lot of listening.
Jerry told O’Reilly—“It’s only a matter time before one of the big 3 tuna companies goes Dolphin Safe. This is an inexorable force that you’re up against—kids, the public and dolphin lovers everywhere.”
Sh: Right, you make enough children angry, things will happen.
D: Exactly! And Jerry said to O’Reilly—“You have kids yourself.” And he did have kids, and, unbeknownst to us at the time, O’Reilly’s kids were already pressing their dad to change the company policy on dolphins.
Afterward Jerry came back and said—“I don’t know. I planted the seed. I don’t know what’s going to happen, maybe nothing.” So we kept up the pressure.
I can’t remember how many months later, I got a call from a VP at StarKist who said—“We want to talk with you about what it would mean to go Dolphin Safe.” When we told them what it would take, they said—“Well, maybe we could phase out over 5 years, or maybe we could produce a dolphin safe version and let consumers decide.”
And I was like—“No. No. No. No. No. There’s only one way you can do this if you’re going to do it. You have to do it right. You have to do it 100% Dolphin Safe. You have to make sure the whole company, and all its subsidiaries worldwide, are all Dolphin Safe for anybody to be Dolphin Safe.
“You have to meet the no-encirclement definition, not just on a trip-by-trip, or set-by-set basis. You can’t store Dolphin Safe tuna one place, and dolphin-deadly tuna someplace else. The boat hold has to be all Dolphin Safe tuna, the whole ship, every ship, everywhere, every time, everyone you purchase from, the entire operation from beginning to end.”
And they were like—“Well, we don’t know.” Anyway, they went to Tony O’Reilly and said—“Here’s what we could do. We could do this, and try to get Earth Island to buy into it, or we could do that.” And he was like—“No, no, if we are going to do this we better do it right. You better follow their whole protocol.”
Sh: Mmm! So they came around!
D: Yes! O’Reilly called me up, and I went to Pittsburgh and met with him. We had a joint press conference. When O’Reilly and I walked into the room, there were more than a hundred cameras and reporters. He turned around to me and said, “What are we doing—signing some incredible world peace treaty?” It was like a Washington DC press conference, just stacked with cameras, because it was an agreement between an enviro and the head of a major global business.
Quickly thereafter it snowballed. O’Reilly thought, and we thought, that StarKist was going to be the only Dolphin Safe company, and they were going to enjoy the benefit of being the only one and would have a competitive advantage. But immediately, as soon as StarKist went Dolphin Safe, boom, boom, the other two said—“We’re going to be dolphin safe too.”
Sh: What year was that press conference?
D: April 12th, 1990.
And, all of a sudden, the three biggest tuna companies in the world, StarKist, BumbleBee and Chicken of the Sea, and all their affiliates, all went Dolphin Safe.
Congresswoman (later Senator) Barbara Boxer of California was totally committed to dolphins. And she said—“Perfect, now we’re going to have a hearing on a bill to codify your agreement into US law. We’re going to have you guys testify in favor of it, and we’re going to have the big three tuna companies testify in favor of it. Then, who’s going to vote against it?”
And that’s exactly what we did. The bill was sponsored by Barbara Boxer and Joe Biden. Barbara was in the House of Representatives, and Joe was in the Senate. They each took the bill and had hearings, and it was totally supported by all sides. Republicans, who usually hated the enviros, said—“If the tuna companies are on board, we’re on the board.” And the Democrats, who usually supported the environment, were on board too. This was a dream come true. How often do we actually have both sides testifying for the same thing? So, boom, they adopted the Dolphin Safe tuna law.
That’s the long version of how this incredibly intractable problem was stuck for years, and we somehow found ways, pulling a lot of different strings, to make a big change.
Sh: One thing this story makes clear is that Congress doesn’t lead; it follows. And they get the credit for what’s started and compelled by the people.
D: Right. Another Dave Brower quote about politicians is “Politicians are like weather vanes. Our job is to make the wind blow.” Barbara Boxer would agree.
There has to be the wind; otherwise they’re lone politicians with no support behind them. So yes, we have to be the wind. We have to generate enough pressure and then we have a chance of prevailing.
Sh: Who all was part of deciding to hit this issue from so many different angles?
D: Dave Brower was part of that. And we had several staff members, including Mark Palmer, Brenda Killian, and Mark Berman. And Sam La Budde and Todd Steiner, who now works on Sea Turtles. We had Josh Floum and our attorney team. We had other environmental organizations like the Humane Society of the US and the Marine Mammal Fund who were key players.
Some groups were standing way to the side, because they didn’t support some of our techniques, like doing a boycott and advocating for legislation for zero kills. We were not compromise oriented on this, and we drew in people who helped us. Some were strategic and some were political, some financial. We built quite a team that pushed it forward.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview, to be published soon.