Dolphin-Safe: Don’t Buy the HypePosted by Stefan Heller, ALDF Litigation Fellow on September 18, 2013
Like the ocean’s tides, consumer consciousness regarding the animal welfare impacts of their purchases ebb and flow. In the late 1980s, consumers were made aware of the devastating impact on dolphins of tuna fishing in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP). Tuna in the ETP is caught by pursuing and encircling dolphins with fishing nets in an effort to capture the large tuna that swim in close association with dolphin pods. Dolphins captured in these nets often drown. It is estimated that this practice, called a “dolphin set,” has killed seven million dolphins in the ETP since its inception. Consumers responded by joining a boycott of canned tuna. The boycott was effective and consumer’s concerns eventually prompted legislative action by Congress. In 1994, the Dolphin Consumer Information Protection Act, DPCIA, was passed. This law codified the use of the now ubiquitous “Dolphin-safe” tuna label. It required that cans bearing the label not contain fish caught through intentional dolphin sets or in any instance where dolphins are observed being injured or killed. Consumers soon returned to purchasing canned tuna, now labeled with a leaping dolphin that proclaimed it to be dolphin-safe. However, this reassuring label may not provide the protection of dolphins consumers believe it does.
A recent World Trade Organization Appellate Panel examining a dispute over dolphin-safe labeling between the U.S. and Mexico reveals information regarding dolphin-safe labeling that is deeply troubling. The Panel found that the U.S. discriminated against Mexican tuna by enforcing its dolphin-safe labeling regulations with respect to dolphins that are killed and injured in the EPT but not taking similar action to ensure the protection of dolphins in other fisheries, such as the Western and Central Pacific Ocean where dolphin mortality is also common. The Panel found that there are “clear indications that the use of certain tuna fishing techniques other than [dolphin sets] may also cause harm to dolphins.” However, the Secretary of Commerce has not made the determinations necessary to subject any fishery outside the ETP to tuna certification requirements. This means that “all tuna products containing tuna caught in a non-ETP fisher[ies] using a method other than setting [nets] on dolphins are eligible to be labelled [sic] dolphin safe without certifying that no dolphin was killed or seriously injured in the set.” In fact, most tuna products sold in the U.S., up to 98.5 percent in some years, can be labeled dolphin safe without any additional dolphin protections.
Dolphin-safe regulations are meant to protect dolphins by giving consumers accurate information. However, the regulations created by DPCIA do not accomplish either goal in the majority of fisheries where tuna are caught and dolphins are harmed. As such, dolphin-safe labels fail to reliably identify tuna products that do not injure and kill dolphins. Without reliable labeling, the best way to avoid harming dolphins is to simply avoid purchasing canned tuna. Therefore, it is time that the demand for truly dolphin-safe tuna resurfaces in consumer’s consciousness and calls for a boycott of canned tuna are renewed.