U.S. Commerce Department Tries Again to Repeal Dolphin Protections

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(05/19/2000) - The U.S. Department of Commerce is continuing a crusade to lower the standards for “dolphin-safe" tuna that, if successful, will result in a greater risk of dolphins being killed or severely injured by tuna-fishing operations, stated Bill Snape, vice president for law at Defenders of Wildlife.

Snape was responding to an announcement by the Commerce Department that it will appeal a U.S. District Court decision that the “dolphin-safe" label can not be applied to cans containing tuna that are caught by intentionally chasing, harassing and netting dolphins to get at the tuna that swim close by.

Defenders of Wildlife charged that the government seeks to lower the standards defined by the term “dolphin-safe" to satisfy trade pressure from Mexico and other countries eager to sell dolphin- netted tuna in the United States.

“This appeal is just that latest attempt in a series of actions by the U.S. government to sacrifice science-based dolphin protections in the name of foreign trade pressure," said Bill Snape, vice president for law at Defenders of Wildlife. “In pursuit of free trade, the government is about to turn ‘dolphin-safe’ into ‘dolphin- deadly.’"

The Clinton Administration is currently involved in another, separate lawsuit involving dolphin protection. Defenders of Wildlife brought the suit in the U.S. Court of International Trade in New York in February after the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the Department of Commerce, issued new regulations to catch and import tuna caught in association with dolphins. Defenders and others sued the agency for its failure to follow U.S. dolphin protection laws in issuing the new policies. The groups argue that the regulations contain numerous loopholes and inadequacies that ignore requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and result in weaker protections for dolphins.

Tuna in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean associate with schools of dolphins. Fishermen there have learned to set nets on dolphins in order to catch the accompanying large schools of tuna fish. This fishing practice, which involves chasing, harassing and netting of both the dolphins and the tuna in mile-long purse seine nets, has led to the deaths of more than seven million dolphins in the last four decades. Congress responded to the public outcry over this slaughter by amending the MMPA several times in the 1990s to minimize dolphin deaths by tuna nets. Since 1990 and the advent of the MMPA’s "dolphin- safe" tuna program, annual dolphin deaths have decreased by 97 percent in the eastern Pacific.

These amendments to the MMPA led to the institution of a trade embargo of tuna from Mexico and other countries that failed to take adequate dolphin protection measures. Mexican tuna was banned from entering the United States from 1990 until last month, when the Clinton Administration lifted the ban, allowing Mexican dolphin-netted tuna into the country for the first time in a decade. The Administration has been negotiating the lifting of the tuna embargoes with Mexico and other nations because U.S. MMPA dolphin provisions were ruled illegal by a dispute body of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT, the predecessor to the World Trade Organization.

Despite the recent lifting of the embargo on its tuna products, Defenders charged that Mexican officials are not satisfied with the progress made by the U.S. government in meeting its tuna trade promises. Aware that its dolphin-netted tuna will be unpopular in the United States without a “dolphin-safe" label, Mexico has vowed since mid- April to fight U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson’s ruling.

The three largest tuna sellers in the United States, StarKist, Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee Tuna, have committed to selling tuna caught only without netting dolphins despite changes to the “dolphin- safe" standard. Defenders of Wildlife applauds these companies and their commitment to dolphin protection and the consumer’s right-to-know that their products are truly dolphin-safe.

Defenders of Wildlife, founded in 1947, is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of native wild animals and plants in their natural communities.

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Contact(s):

Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270

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