House Weakens Dolphin Protection

(05/21/1997) - Washington, D.C. - The House of Representatives today passed legislation that would render the popular "dolphin-safe" label on tuna cans virtually meaningless, according to Defenders of Wildlife and more than 80 other environmental, consumer and trade groups that oppose the bill.

Some call H. R. 408 the "dolphin-death" bill because it changes the law to allow tuna caught by dolphin-harmful methods to be sold in the United States under the "dolphin-safe" label. The strong grassroots opposition to the bill could not, however, overcome the support of Mexico and the White House for the legislation. H. R. 408 would have the effect of lifting tuna embargoes on Mexico, Colombia, and other nations.

Introduced by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), H.R. 408 changes the definition of the "dolphin-safe" label under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to include tuna that was caught by methods that intentionally harass dolphins, chase them with speedboats, and encircle them with mile-long nets in order to catch the tuna swimming below them - as long as no observed dolphin deaths occur.

Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen said after the vote that, "This bill completely ignores the potentially harmful stresses placed on dolphins during the hours-long chasing and encircling procedure and the deaths that will ensue whether `observed' or not." He added, "It's tragic that the House of Representatives has rejected a program created in 1988 and 1992 in response to overwhelming support from the American public. This vote flies in the face of common sense - that a `dolphin- safe' label is meant to reassure consumers that the safety of dolphins was in no way jeopardized to capture the tuna they are purchasing. This bill not only endangers dolphins, but cheats the American consumer. What's worse, it does so to placate corporate trade interests."

The impetus for the legislation was the implementation of an international agreement on fishing in the Eastern Tropical Pacific known as the Declaration of Panama. The agreement was signed in October 1995 by the United States, Mexico, and nine other countries. The Gilchrest bill was written in response to Mexican demands that the United States change its tuna-dolphin policy after an international trade tribunal ruled that current U.S. law is inconsistent with General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), now the World Trade Organization (WTO) standards. Only after Congress changes U.S. law to meet the other signatories' trade demands will the countries allegedly meet again to formalize the agreement.

Bill Snape, Defenders' Legal Director, said today, "The House has unfortunately decided to weaken an important environmental standard in the name of corporate trade. However, we expect that this legislation will meet significant opposition in the Senate and that the American public will be outraged when they learn more about how the House betrayed them today."

Defenders and its coalition have supported a bipartisan approach sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) that would retain the present dolphin-safe standard but would change the current law's trade provisions to create an incentive for responsible Mexican fishers to practice dolphin- safe methods and export their tuna into the United States. This approach is consistent with both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the GATT/WTO requirements, according to Defenders' legal analysis. A companion bill to H.R. 408, the bill passed today, was introduced in the Senate by John Breaux (D-LA) and Ted Stevens (R-AK). The Senate version, S.39, will likely be marked up in the Senate Commerce Committee in June. Floor action in the Senate is uncertain because of filibuster threats by a number of senators on both sides of the aisle.



Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270