House Approves Dismantling of Dolphin-Safe Standards

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(07/31/1996) - Washington, D.C. - Most conservation groups warn that House passage today of legislation weakening standards for labeling tuna cans will prevent consumers from knowing whether tuna is "dolphin-safe" and lead to thousands of dolphin deaths.

Defenders of Wildlife and a coalition of eighty other groups adamantly opposed the bill, H.R. 2823 sponsored by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), because it would weaken the definition of "dolphin-safe" tuna, relax tough U.S. enforcement measures, and directly threaten the highly imperilled spotted and spinner dolphin populations. A companion bill (S 1420) is expected on the Senate floor after the August congressional recess.

"Today, Congress took a huge step backwards and allowed special interests and trade politics to dictate environmental legislation in this country. This bill would dismantle one of the most popular consumer programs ever, and would completely ignore the concerns of thousands of school children and others across America whose demands for an end to dolphin killing led to the current law," said Defenders' President Rodger Schlickeisen. "Children know that harvesting tuna by chasing them at high speeds with boats and helicopters, encircling them, separating them from their families, and causing them injury and stress is not `safe' for dolphins. They obviously understand truth-in- labeling better than most Members of Congress."

Defenders of Wildlife, Earth Island Institute, Sierra Club and many other groups supported an amendment to H.R. 2823 offered by Representatives George Miller (D-Calif.) and Rep. Gerry Studds (D-MA) that would have retained the integrity of the "dolphin-safe" label by providing consumers with a notice on tuna cans about whether the tuna has been caught without intentionally setting nets upon them.

However, the Gilchrest bill, passed by a vote of 316 to 108, changes the definition of the "dolphin-safe" label to allow into the U.S. 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. Studds and Miller offered an amendment on the House floor to retain the present definition, but it failed by a vote of 161-260.

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. It 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 mandates weakened U.S. dolphin protection laws including the 1990 Dolphin Consumer Protection Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

"The Gilchrest-sponsored, White House- supported bill is simply bad legislation that authorizes deliberate killing of depleted species of dolphins. The dolphins and American consumers lose, while foreign lobbyists and special interests win," claimed Defenders' legal director William Snape.

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 will die in the nets, though "unobserved".

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. The Gilchrest bill advocates setting nets on dolphins again, arguing that alternative 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 sea turtle bycatch levels 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 Studds and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) 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 is consistent with both NAFTA and the GATT/WTO requirements. On the Senate side, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has introduced the conservation legislation.

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Contact(s):

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