Trade Pressure Deals Dolphins Deadly Blow

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Clinton Administration Weakens Tuna Label

(04/29/1999) - Washington, D.C. -- Conservationists decried Commerce Secretary William Daley's announcement today that the Clinton Administration will weaken the meaning of the "dolphin-safe" tuna label by allowing use of the label by companies that use tuna-fishing methods that injure dolphins.

Faced with trade pressure from Mexico, Venezuela, and others, the Administration will alter current labeling standards despite a scientific study indicating that these types of fishing methods are detrimental to dolphin populations. Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation groups criticized today's decision, which was prompted by a law passed by Congress in 1997 calling for a scientific study and review of the definition of the label.

"The Administration's decision to weaken protections afforded to dolphins is deeply disturbing, especially since it was made without scientific justification," said Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen. "While foreign tuna fleets and governments rejoice overthis announcement, this is a sad day for dolphins and their marine environment."

The 1997 amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) came in response to negotiations between the White House and Latin American governments desperate to gain access to the lucrative U.S. tuna market. Previous amendments to the MMPA led to an embargo of tuna from Mexico and other countries with high levels of dolphin mortalities resulting from their tuna fishing operations in which schools of dolphins are encircled to capture the tuna swimming near them. This in turn led to a ruling against the United States at the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organization) in 1991, which ruled the US embargo is a violation of international trade rules. The basis of this decision was, and still is, the notion that a country cannot block the importation of a product (tuna) that itself is not environmentally harmful even if it is produced in a way that harms the environment (i.e. killing dolphins).

Subsequently, the Clinton Administration negotiated a deal with Latin American countries that would eliminate the embargo provisions and would allow Mexico and other countries to import tuna into the United States. Specifically, increased dolphin kill levels were established and the definition of "dolphin-safe" was proposed to be changed to allow intentional encirclement of dolphins. After two years of battles on Capitol Hill, Congress finally passed a law called the International Dolphin Conservation Program Act instituting many of the deal's provisions. The law called for a study by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) of the effects of the encirclement method of tuna fishing on depleted dolphin stocks in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP). The encirclement method involves the deliberate chasing, harassing, catching, and encircling with nets of dolphins swimming in association with schools of tuna.

Congress mandated the Commerce Secretary to decide the fate of the "dolphin-safe" label based on the results of the first half of the NMFS study, which has just been completed. Congress authorized a weakening of the label unless the study proved that the encirclement method causes a ‘significant adverse impact' on depleted dolphin populations (already two species are listed as depleted by the MMPA the Northeastern offshore spotted and Eastern spinner dolphins), which effectively places the conservation burden on dolphins and not on the tuna industry. Conservationists charge that today's finding ignores the scientific evidence that encirclement is detrimental to dolphins and overall marine biodiversity. The best historical data available on dolphin populations in the ETP combined with the recent NMFS population survey results reveal that despite restrictions on dolphin encirclement by tuna nets, there has been no statistically significant increase in depleted dolphin populations, and the depleted Northeastern offshore spotted dolphin is showing a statistically significant decrease in population levels. This is a direct contradiction to the 2 to 6 percent per year dolphin population growth expected by scientists. These findings make clear that encirclement of dolphins by tuna nets is having significant adverse impacts on depleted dolphin populations.

"Despite commitments by large U.S. tuna companies like Star-Kist, Bumblebee, and Chicken of the Sea to continue to sell tuna that is safe for dolphins, and the wishes of millions of American consumers who have voiced their objections to purchasing tuna that harms dolphins, the Clinton Administration has put foreign trade demands above protecting wildlife," says Defenders Legal Director William Snape. "Like the Administration's efforts to liberalize trade in forest products, this decision makes clear that the Administration still makes our natural environment take a back seat to multi-national trade interests."

NMFS will continue the second half of its scientific study and a second finding will be announced by December 31, 2002. At that point, the Secretary of Commerce will make yet another decision regarding the dolphin-safe label.

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Contact(s):

Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270

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