Still dolphin friendly?
By Philip Cohen in San Francisco THE “dolphin-safe” label for tuna is about to take on a new meaning in the US—one that is dividing environmentalists. From the autumn, new government regulations will allow the label to be used on cans of tuna even if the fish were caught by boats that chased and encircled schools of dolphins. “These labels will simply be lying to the public,” says Mark Palmer of the Earth Island Institute in San Francisco, one of many environmental organisations opposed to the legislation. “It will increase the killing of dolphin stocks that are already depleted.” For the past nine years, only tuna caught when no dolphins were present could be labelled as dolphin-safe. Under the new regulations, however, “safe” will mean that no dolphins were killed or injured when the fish were caught. Palmer argues that dolphins snared by the nets and then released may still be injured and could die later. But other organisations, such as the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, are backing the plan, saying that it rewards fishermen who avoid killing dolphins. Mature yellowfin tuna tend to gather below schools of dolphins. Since the 1950s, many fishermen have taken advantage of this habit by encircling dolphins with huge nets to catch the tuna below. This method killed hundreds of thousands of dolphins each year. But consumer pressure and legislation have forced most fishermen to change their practices. As a result, the number of dolphins killed has dropped dramatically, from 133 000 in 1986 to about 2000 last year. When the US passed the International Dolphin Conservation Act in 1997, however, it required a loosening of labelling restrictions from an earlier, stricter law, unless research showed the encircling method had a significant impact on dolphin stocks even when trapped animals were freed. Scientists from the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have just completed a preliminary report based on a four-month survey of spinner and spotted dolphins, in which they found that even though fishermen were taking steps to release trapped dolphins, two out of three depleted stocks were not recovering as expected. Despite this finding, they did not have enough data to conclude that the problem was caused by encircling nets. So while the research will continue until 2001, the Act requires Congress to adopt the label change now. Other methods of catching tuna may be more environmentally damaging than encircling nets, claims NMFS biologist Jim Lecky, based in Long Beach, California. Capturing juvenile schools, rather than the mature fish found beneath dolphins, removes tuna from the population before they have a chance to breed. And alternative netting methods, such as fishing for schools that gather under floating debris, can snag other threatened species including sharks, swordfish and sea turtles. Palmer dismisses these arguments, however, saying that the new labelling will not dissuade fishermen from such practices and may encourage more tuna fishing using the encircling method. The Earth Island Institute is already planning to file a lawsuit against the government to reverse the decision. For the time being, however, the new regulations may have little impact, because the manufacturers of the three biggest-selling brands of tuna in the US—Bumblebee, Chicken of the Sea and Starkist—say they will only use tuna caught by the previous dolphin-safe methods. Together,