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Saving Dolphins From Tuna Nets: An Update

| Mark J. Palmer
Topics: Cetacean Habitat, Dolphins, Tuna Industry

Back in 1990, Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), with the support of thousands of individuals from around the country, convinced the largest tuna company in the world to immediately cease tuna fishing that intentionally chased and netted dolphins to catch the tuna swimming beneath.  It was a big victory, which stopped the worst killing of marine mammals in history. 

Starkist’s decision to stop setting nets on dolphins led Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee to adopt the same strict Dolphin Safe standards, and then more tuna companies overseas agreed to join the effort for dolphins.

IMMP revolutionized the world tuna industry – saving an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 dolphins every year.  We put in place an international verification program to ensure that tuna companies abided by Dolphin Safe fishing practices, and we convinced the U.S. Congress to pass a historic law for Dolphin Safe labeling on all canned tuna.

But the Mexican government, bowing to pressure from the handful of tuna millionaires who refused to fish with dolphin safe fishing methods, worked to undermine the Dolphin Safe label.  They went to court to overturn the U.S. legislation…and LOST.  They went to the U.S. Congress to undermine the Dolphin Safe label… and LOST.  So they turned to global trade pacts. 

Such international trade pacts as the World Trade Association (WTO), and pending pacts like the secretive Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), are set up to promote trade, without much regard for protecting the environment or public health or any other values aside from business.

Mexico charged – in front of the WTO – that the Dolphin Safe tuna label is an unfair barrier to free trade and should be gutted.  And the WTO – made up of trade bureaucrats, not scientists or people like us who care about the survival of dolphins – has rewarded them with a series of ill-supported and downright scary preliminary rulings calling for the removal of the “offending trade measures” that would eliminate all dolphin protections.

Mexico’s latest gambit before the WTO is a ludicrous claim that the U.S. government owes Mexico $472 million dollars EVERY YEAR for preventing the sale of its tuna products on U.S. supermarket shelves with a phony Dolphin Safe label – even though this dolphin-deadly tuna is produced by the chasing, netting, and killing of thousands of dolphins every year.

With our help and support, the U.S. Office of the Trade Representative’s legal team is fighting this bizarre and dangerous claim.  We’re working day and night to oppose trade pacts that are used to threaten the lives of dolphins and the successful Dolphin Safe label.  We have repeatedly responded to the Mexican government’s false claims about the Dolphin Safe tuna label.  Mexican tuna can be sold in the US.  But they cannot use a false Dolphin Safe label.  Only if they abide by the Dolphin Safe standards can they legitimately use a Dolphin Safe label for tuna.  This is not discrimination – this is plain honesty in advertising.

Mexico has argued, without much proof, that other ways of fishing for tuna harm other marine life.  Since Mexico’s alternative is to kill dolphins instead, the issue is really misleading.  IMMP has worked with the tuna industry to reduce harm to marine life.  For example, IMMP’s Dolphin Safe standards include requiring sea turtles and sharks to be released alive from purse seine nets.  Now, most regional fisheries management agencies for tuna are at last mandating the same thing.

We cannot allow trade to trump our hard-fought environmental protection laws.  We cannot allow it to reverse the progress we’ve made in reducing the dolphin killing by the U.S. and foreign tuna industry by more than 95% since we established the Dolphin Safe tuna label.

We now have more than 800 tuna companies around the world that have proved that they can harvest tuna without intentionally netting dolphins, and we know that consumers don’t want to buy tuna caught at the expense of dolphin lives.  Your support for our monitoring and advocacy is saving tens of thousands of dolphins every year.   It is also critical in fending off the threats from trade pacts that would destroy dolphins and undermine other environmental measures.