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April 16, 2013

Victory for Dolphins and the Dolphin-Safe Label

When I was a kid, the first broader animal protection issue that I connected with was the drowning of dolphins in massive tuna nets. I told my mom that I didn’t want to eat tuna if dolphins had to die.

Little did I know that as an adult, I’d still be working on this issue. And here at The HSUS and Humane Society International, we’ve kept fighting, through the ups and downs, in order to prevent the drowning of extraordinary numbers of dolphins – with some estimates running in excess of 7 million killed in the last few decades. I am glad to report we are on the upswing, and it’s my hope that the recent gains are made permanent.

The “dolphin-safe” label gained support in the late 1980s as consumers expressed anger and disgust over the image of hundreds of thousands of dead and dying dolphins suffocating and drowning in purse seine nets. For reasons still unknown, schools of tuna in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean frequently swim beneath large groups of dolphins. Since around 1960, tuna fishermen used this association to target tuna schools by chasing the dolphins until they were exhausted, and then dropping a football field size net in a big circle around them to catch the tuna swimming below. The dolphin-safe label promised consumers that the tuna had been caught without deliberately chasing and setting nets on dolphins. By June 1, 1994, the entire U.S. tuna fleet was dolphin-safe, and all tuna in the U.S. had to meet that standard, and be labeled as such. 

Dolphins in Venezuela
Naomi Rose/The HSUS

In the mid-1990s, I, along with my colleagues, tried to stop legislation that sought to weaken our well-known and trusted definition of the dolphin-safe label. Pressure came from tuna fishing interests outside the U.S., specifically Mexico, which wanted access to the U.S. market and our label while continuing to set nets on dolphins. It was political double-speak – kind of like horse slaughter being humane for horses – and our adversaries were well funded and effective. But thanks to the heroic and skilled efforts of Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., there was a provision added to the new law that blocked the amendment to weaken the label from taking effect if science showed that chasing and encircling dolphins negatively impacted their populations. 

The Commerce Department found in 1999, and again in 2002, that this fishing method did not have an adverse impact on dolphins. However, the weakened definition never went into effect because The HSUS, along with environmental organizations, successfully challenged the government’s finding in U.S. courts as not having met the requirement of the law. 

The U.S. government appealed to a federal appellate court, and in 2007 it rejected the administration’s conclusion that scientific evidence of harm was lacking and that in fact the science strongly indicated that targeting dolphins was hurting the population. The label remained unchanged. We prevailed.

But the story didn’t end there.

Mexico, dissatisfied with the ruling, challenged the U.S. position at the World Trade Organization, claiming that our dolphin-safe label was an unfair trade barrier. The HSI submitted an amicus brief in support of the lawfulness of the U.S. label, but on Sept. 15, 2011, a WTO dispute panel released its ruling on the matter, finding that the dolphin-safe label did not comply with WTO rules. The U.S. appealed the adverse ruling, but the Appellate Body ruled that our law violated WTO rules, stating that it unfairly discriminated against Mexico.

The U.S. has chosen to comply with the WTO ruling, and, on April 5, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a proposed rule to revise the regulations governing the dolphin-safe label. However, instead of seeking to dismantle our dolphin safe standards, the Obama administration decided to expand the scope of these standards to all oceans with tuna fisheries and to all countries seeking to import tuna. This is a huge victory for consumers in the U.S., and dolphins everywhere. This rule is open for public comment until May 6, and NOAA is aiming to publish a final rule in July 2013.

Comment and show your support for the rule here »

I don’t believe that this latest decision ends the tuna dolphin story. It is possible that Mexico will again appeal to the WTO, claiming that the new U.S. rule fails to properly implement the Appellate Body’s ruling; but if they do, we’ll be there to fight for the dolphins yet again. At the end of the day, what is most important is that we have fought off every attempt to weaken the label. And in the nearly 20 years since I first worked on this issue in Congress, I can now say that we helped strengthen protections for dolphins in every ocean and tuna fishery.

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