Tuna Still Deadly to Dolphins, U.S. Agency Finds

By Cat Lazaroff

SAN FRANCISCO, California, December 6, 2002 (ENS) - Thousands of dolphins, particularly baby dolphins, are still dying in tuna nets in the eastern tropical Pacific, finds a report prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service and released by the Earth Island Institute. The long awaited report comes just weeks before the Commerce Department must make a decision regarding whether to weaken the rules regarding the labeling of "dolphin safe" tuna.

The Secretary of Commerce has until the end of the year to determine whether the tuna fishery in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean is harming dolphin populations. If, as expected, the finding is "no significant adverse impact," the Commerce Department will weaken the dolphin safe label by broadening the definition of dolphin safe to include tuna caught by fishing methods that include chasing and encircling dolphins.


The eastern spinner dolphin is estimated to be at about 35 percent of its historic numbers, and is designated as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. (Two photos courtesy NMFS)
But according to the report by the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, part of the National Marine Fisheries Service and an agency of the Commerce Department, dolphins in the Pacific are not making the recovery that the dolphin safe labeling restrictions were expected to promote. In fact, the report suggests, some populations of dolphins may still be declining, despite evidence that the accidental snaring of dolphins, known as bycatch, by tuna fishers has reportedly dropped to less than 3,000 dolphins per year.

"Despite considerable scientific effort by fishery scientists, there is little evidence of recovery, and concerns remain that the practice of chasing and encircling dolphins somehow is adversely affecting the ability of these depleted stocks to recover," the study states.

The 96 page internal report, "Report of the Scientific Research Program Under the International Dolphin Conservation Program Act," is dated August 23, 2002, but had not been released to the public. The nonprofit environmental education group Earth Island Institute has posted a leaked copy of the report on its website at: http://www.earthisland.org/immp/secret_report.pdf

The report, an accumulation of government research conducted from 1997 to 2002, shows that dolphin populations in the Pacific remain depleted, with eastern spinner dolphins at 35 percent of their historic levels, and northeastern offshore spotted dolphins at just 20 percent of their former numbers.

"For the first time, NMFS has officially acknowledged the massive and previously uncounted killing of baby dolphins that are separated from their mothers during chase and capture by tuna vessels using mile long nets," said David Phillips, director of Earth Island Institute's international marine mammal project. "This is a shocking and tragic revelation."

offshore spotted

The northeastern offshore spotted dolphin is at just 20 percent of its historic levels.
According to one analysis cited by the Earth Island Institute, it would take 65 years for eastern spinner dolphins to recover, while depleted northeastern offshore spotted dolphins would take 78 years to recover. Another analysis suggests that neither species would recover even after 200 years, the Institute notes.

The authors of the report offer three possible explanations for the dolphins' lack of recovery, including: environmental changes that reduce the number of dolphins the habitat can support; delayed recovery despite the reduction or elimination of dolphin bycatch; or effects of tuna fishing that reach beyond the impacts of bycatch.

For example, the report notes that the fishing methods favored by commercial tuna fisheries in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and other nations may stress dolphins, even when they are not caught in nets, or when they are released from nets alive. Many of the region's tuna fishers chase down schools of dolphins in order to target the tuna on which the dolphins feed, than encircle the tuna with nets that can also ensnare dolphins.

At least an additional six to 10 percent of eastern spinner dolphin mortality, and 10 to 15 percent of northeastern offshore spotted dolphin mortality, is caused by the separation of baby dolphins from their mothers during the chasing and netting process, the report finds.

The report cites figures showing that tuna fishers set nets on schools of dolphins an estimated 5,000 times a year, resulting in the pursuit of 6.8 million dolphins and the netting of two million dolphins.

dolphins caughts

Dolphins caught in tuna nets. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
Individual eastern spinner dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific are chased an average of 5.6 times a year, and captured an average of 0.7 times a year. Northeastern offshore spotted dolphins are chased 10.6 times a year and captured 3.2 times a year.

The report states that physiological stress of these encounters with fishers results in decreased births, impaired health and the deaths of dolphins, offering a "plausible" explanation for the lack of recovery of depleted dolphin populations.

"This report on NMFS scientists' dolphin research clearly shows that the technique favored by the Mexican tuna fleet and other nations to catch tuna causes significant harm to dolphins," Phillips continued. "The Secretary of Commerce would have to defy science, common sense, and the law in order to weaken the U.S. federal standards for the use of the 'Dolphin Safe' tuna label in light of the report."

If the Commerce Department adopts the previously proposed changes to the 1990 "dolphin safe" standards, the methods used by fleets from Mexico and Central America would be included under the U.S. definition of tuna fishing techniques that do not harm dolphins. The United States now has highest standards in the world for protecting dolphins who were dying by the hundreds of thousands in tuna nets before boycotts and trade embargoes forced changes in the fishery in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Mexican government has been lobbying for changes that would give the Mexican tuna industry access to the lucrative American market. In the mid-1990s, Mexico threatened action against the United States on the grounds that the U.S. dolphin-protection laws violate the free trade rules of the World Trade Organization.


The Commerce Department's Dolphin Safe tuna label. (Logo courtesy NMFS)
Clinton administration officials backed the Mexican government and advocated not only for opening U.S. markets to Mexico's tuna but also for changing the definition of dolphin safe to allow tuna caught by methods that harm dolphins to be sold under the dolphin safe label. A lengthy legislative and legal battle ensued, with dolphins receiving a temporary reprieve as the Commerce Department complied with a Congressional mandate to develop a study of dolphin populations before changing the criteria for using the dolphin safe label.

The deadline for a final decision on the broad new regulations is December 31, 2002.

"A finding of no significant adverse impact is simply impossible based on these findings," said Kitty Block, special counsel to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) United Nations and treaties department.

"A no significant adverse impact finding would be contrary to the scientific evidence presented in the report by the government's own scientists," Block added. "The Humane Society of the United States encourages the Commerce Secretary to base this decision on science rather than politics, in which case there is clearly only one correct decision - to maintain the current standards for the dolphin safe label."


A diver from the environmental group Greenpeace works to free a dolphin trapped underwater in a fishing net. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
The HSUS and Earth Island Institute argue that the Commerce Department has delayed releasing the report on dolphins and tuna because it intends to allow sales of tuna caught by methods that harm dolphins.

"The American public deserves to know the truth about how tuna was caught," Phillips stated. "The Secretary of Commerce is posed to decide to deliberately lie to American consumers to benefit a small handful of Mexican tuna millionaires and drug lords, who would be able import tuna to the U.S. using a phony 'Dolphin Safe' label."

"All of the major U.S. and European tuna processors have pledged not to buy or sell such tuna," concluded Phillips. "American consumers won't buy tuna stained by the blood of dolphins!"