WASHINGTON, DC -- The Bush administration has decided that a controversial fishing method involving encircling pods of dolphins with mile long nets to catch tuna has "no significant adverse impact" on the dolphins. Conservation groups say the determination, which will allow tuna from Mexico to be sold in the U.S. under a "dolphin safe" label, could spell disaster for imperiled dolphin populations.
On December 31, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced that after new research, it had concluded that the tuna purse seine industry practice of encircling dolphins to catch tuna has "no significant adverse impact on dolphin populations in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean." The announcement came less than a month after a conservation group released an unpublished NMFS report indicating that thousands of dolphins, particularly baby dolphins, are still dying in tuna nets in the eastern tropical Pacific.
The New Year's Eve finding cleared the way for tuna caught under the terms of a binding multilateral environmental agreement, particularly in waters off the coast of Mexico, to be imported into the United States with the dolphin safe label, so long as no dolphins are injured or killed during the set in which the tuna are caught.
"One of our main goals is to reduce dolphin deaths and to conserve living marine resources, while at the same time maintaining the sustainability of the Eastern Tropical Pacific tuna fishery under the international agreement," said NMFS director Bill Hogarth. "This agreement has reduced dolphin mortality from hundreds of thousands of dolphins to approximately 2,000 dolphins per year."
In 1991, NMFS implemented the "dolphin safe" labeling system as a way of reducing dolphin deaths due to tuna fishing. Under the initial label criteria, tuna harvested in the Eastern Tropical Pacific could be labeled "dolphin safe" only if no nets were intentionally set on dolphins during the fishing trip.
Under the December 31 decision, the criteria have been changed so that tuna harvested in the Eastern Tropical Pacific by large purse seine vessels can be labeled dolphin safe even if dolphins are encircled, so long as an on board observer certifies that no dolphins are killed or seriously injured during the set in which the tuna were caught.
"The dolphin safe label was developed as a way to help protect and conserve dolphins," said Hogarth. "With this decision, Americans can continue to have confidence that when they purchase tuna with the dolphin safe label that dolphins are being protected."
But conservation groups warn that the relaxed requirements for dolphin safe labeling could lead to the deaths of thousands more dolphins each year.
"The whole point of the 'dolphin safe' label is to give consumers a choice of tuna that wasn't caught by netting dolphins," said William Snape, vice president for law and litigation at Defenders of Wildlife, one of several groups planning to challenge the NMFS decision in court. "We have great confidence that the courts will strike down this blatantly illegal decision," Snape added.
In the 1950s, fishers discovered that yellowfin tuna in the Eastern Tropical Pacific could be found beneath schools of dolphin. For years after the discovery, the predominant tuna fishing methods in the region involved encircling schools of dolphins with fishing nets to trap the tuna concentrated below.
Hundreds of thousands of dolphins died because of this fishing method. Under the International Dolphin Conservation Program (IDCP), fishers were required to change their purse seine fishing methods, and since the 1980s, confirmed dolphin mortalities have dropped to about 2,000 per year.
Critics of tuna fishing in the Eastern Tropical Pacific say the actual number of dolphins harmed is probably much higher. A 96 page report by NMFS scientists, made public last month, found 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 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 found.
"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 those depleted stocks to recover," the study said.
"The Bush administration's claim that chasing and netting of dolphins is 'safe' for dolphins is fraudulent and must be overturned by the courts," said David Phillips, director of the Earth Island Institute's International Marine Mammal Project, which released the unpublished NMFS report.
Arguing that the decision by NMFS ignores two federal court rulings against a similar decision, made in 1999 by former Commerce Secretary William Daley, Phillips warned that, "We will be seeing the Bush administration in court, as this decision is clearly illegal."
U.S. participation in the Eastern Tropical Pacific tuna fishery has decreased over the years while foreign participation in the fishery has continued to increase. U.S. tuna fishermen no longer set nets on dolphins, and the major U.S. tuna processors - StarKist, Bumble Bee, and Chicken of the Sea - have pledged they will not buy tuna caught by chasing and netting dolphins.
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.
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.
The Commerce Department, which overseas NMFS, was required by Congress to conduct research and make a finding regarding the impact of the tuna purse seine fishery on depleted dolphin stocks in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, before changing the criteria for using the dolphin safe label.
The agency's decision, just meeting the December 31 deadline, was based on a review of the results of this required research, information obtained under the existing International Dolphin Conservation Program (IDCP) and other relevant information.
Mexican officials said the new definition of dolphin safe helps insure that the U.S., Mexico, and South American countries will continue to work together to protect dolphins.
"The Mexican Government welcomes this decision that will assure the continuation of the Agreement of the International Program for Dolphin Conservation, one of the most important fishery conservation agreements," said a spokesperson from the Mexican embassy in Washington DC.
NMFS Director Hogarth said that the U.S. plans to seek better enforcement of IDCP requirements and promote a package of improvements to the program, including new requirements on the growing number of smaller tuna fishing vessels plying the region's waters.
NMFS said it will continue to conduct about $3 million per year worth of research and monitoring on depleted dolphin stocks. Working with the IATTC and the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, the agency will conduct annual reviews of the effectiveness of the IDCP and continue to develop conservation measures to recover depleted dolphins and maintain tuna stocks.
The northeastern offshore spotted dolphin is at just 20 percent of its historic levels.In the meantime, several conservation groups plan to ask the courts to overturn the NMFS decision.
"The Bush administration is selling out dolphins in order to reward Mexican tuna millionaires," said Phillips. "If the Secretary's decision is left intact, 20,000 to 40,000 dolphins each year will be sacrificed, and falsely labeled Mexican tuna will be on the U.S. market as 'dolphin safe.' We cannot allow that to occur."
More information regarding the dolphin safe tuna program is available at: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/prot_res/PR2/Tuna_Dolphin/tunadolphin.html
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