Congress Comes Closer to Dismantling Dolphin-Safe Tuna Standards

(05/08/1996) - Washington, D.C: Conservationists warn that trade politics, not dolphin protection, likely will drive the debate today when the House Resources Committee votes on legislation that would weaken standards for labelling tuna cans "dolphin-safe." Defenders of Wildlife and a coalition of more than seventy other groups adamantly oppose weakening the standard, as proposed in H.R. 2823 sponsored by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD).

"It would be criminal for Congress to allow a massive increase in dolphin deaths in the Pacific Ocean just to bail out Mexico and the North American Free Trade Agreement. This bill would dismantle one of the most popular labeling programs ever, ignoring the concerns of hundreds of thousands of school children and others in the American public whose demands for an end to dolphin killing led to the current legislation," said Defenders' President Rodger Schlickeisen.

Passed out of subcommittee last month, the Gilchrest bill was written in response to Mexican demands that the United States change its tuna- dolphin policy after an international tribunal ruled that current U.S. law is inconsistent with General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) standards.

H.R. 2823 changes the current definition of the "dolphin-safe" label found on cans of tuna sold in the United States to allow into the market tuna that was caught by methods that encircle, harass, and chase dolphins in order to catch accompanying tuna, as long as no "observed" dolphin deaths occur. The bill would implement an international agreement, known as the Declaration of Panama, which was signed last October by the United States, Mexico, and nine other countries. The Declaration of Panama necessitates a weakening in U.S. dolphin protection laws including the Dolphin Consumer Protection Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. Defenders says such a change is exactly what many in the environmental community feared two years ago during the NAFTA debate.

In 1991, bipartisan leadership in Congress demanded that trade agreements not jeopardize wildlife protection laws. Even though H.R.2823 does just that, it is supported by the White House and a small faction of environmental groups. "The Gilchrest - White House bill is a bad deal for dolphins and American consumers," charged Defenders' legal director William Snape. "Sound science dictates that we move with extreme caution when authorizing the deliberate killing of depleted species of dolphins, which this bill does."

The conservationists say the Gilchrest bill's definition of "dolphin-safe" does not take into account the various harmful effects of chasing and encircling dolphins with nets or the fact that many dolphins die in the nets without being observed. Under current U.S. law, tuna fishermen in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) can set nets on schools of tuna not accompanied by dolphins and on floating objects such as logs to avoid setting nets on dolphins. H.R. 2823 advocates setting nets on dolphins again, arguing that other methods result in high mortality levels of other species like sea turtles and juvenile tuna. However, the federal government's own scientists have admitted that unacceptable levels of sea turtle bycatch are a result of fishermen killing for food, and that the tuna population has not been significantly depleted as a result of juvenile tuna being caught.

Defenders and its coalition support bipartisan legislation sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Rep. Gerry Studds (D-MA), which would retain the present dolphin-safe standard but would change the current law's trade provisions to create an incentive for responsible Mexican tuna fishers to practice dolphin-safe methods. The Miller/Studds bill would be consistent with both NAFTA and the GATT/WTO requirements.



Joan Moody, 202-682-9400 x220 (Media)
Bill Snape, 202-682-9400 x232 (Legal)