Conservationists Sue Federal Government Over Violations of Dolphin Law

(02/08/2000) - New York City - Defenders of Wildlife, Earth Island Institute and others today filed a lawsuit against the Clinton Administration for what they call its refusal to abide by U.S. law on dolphin conservation in its "zest to please foreign trading partners." The case was filed in the U.S. Court of International Trade.

The lawsuit targets the Commerce Department’s Final Rule implementing the International Dolphin Conservation Program Act (IDCPA). The conservationists assert that the rule ignores the clear requirements of the IDCPA, which Congress passed in 1997 to specify procedures for catching and importing tuna that is caught by encircling schools of dolphins swimming above the tuna. The IDCPA also mandates strict conditions for lifting embargoes on tuna from Mexico, Venezuela and other countries that previously refused to adopt dolphin protection programs comparable to that of the United States. These embargoes were put in place ten years ago in response to consumer demand for clamping down on encirclement of dolphins with tuna nets, a fishing method that has resulted in the deaths of more than 7 million dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP) over the past four decades.

"Today's legal action to protect dolphins is also about defending the American consumer who wants to be sure that no dolphins have been killed or injured in order to supply the can of tuna bought in the local grocery store. The Commerce Department’s program changes provide little if any assurance of dolphin safety. The final rule reflects a zest to please foreign trading partners, particularly Mexico, who export tuna to the United States, rather than a desire to protect dolphins or consumers," said Defenders President Rodger Schlickeisen.

The IDCPA amended the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA) to implement an international agreement governing tuna fishing practices on dolphins in the ETP. Enactment of the MMPA and its amendments have contributed to significant reductions in dolphin mortality by U.S. tuna fishermen. However, despite clear requirements in the MMPA, the agencies have failed to implement adequate systems for ensuring the separation and tracking of imported dolphin-safe and unsafe tuna, failed to provide incentives for vessel captains to reduce tuna-related dolphin deaths, failed to set annual targets for reducing dolphin mortality, and failed to conduct important dolphin research.

The MMPA also requires the U.S. market to remain closed to foreign tuna until nations clearly demonstrate that they are meeting the obligations of the international agreement. Despite the failure of nations such as Mexico to meet their financial and dolphin protection obligations of the program, the embargoes against dolphin unsafe tuna could be lifted very soon.

"We will demonstrate that the Clinton Administration has blatantly violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act's dolphin-safe tuna requirements. The root cause of this program failure is trade politics and foreign pressure," stated William J. Snape, III, Defenders Vice President for Law, who is litigating this case.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include biologist Samuel LaBudde, whose undercover videotape of dolphins dying in tuna nets helped lead to the successful federal "dolphin safe" tuna program, and Environmental Solutions International (ESI). ESI’s Christopher Croft, after serving as a government observer for dolphin protection on tuna boats, worked for Defenders of Wildlife to help lead the coalition that passed legislation setting up the dolphin-safe label. Environmental activist leader David Brower, the Humane Society of the United States, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Earthtrust, Greenpeace Foundation, American Humane Association, Animal Welfare Institute, International Wildlife Coalition, Animal Fund and Craig Van Note are also plaintiffs. This lawsuit joins another filed last summer by these and other groups for the Administration’s arbitrary and capricious decision to weaken the meaning of the dolphin-safe label found on tuna cans, ignoring scientific information supplied by the government’s own researchers.

The Administration has been negotiating the lifting of the tuna embargoes with Mexico and other nations since the mid 1990s, when U.S. MMPA dolphin provisions were ruled illegal by a dispute body of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, GATT, the predecessor to the World Trade Organization (WTO). In 1997, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) became the second U.S. environmental law ruled by the WTO to be inconsistent with international trade rules. That ruling has led to a weakening of protections afforded to endangered sea turtles caught in foreign shrimp nets.



Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270