THE MOST effective animal protection measure of recent times has been the "dolphin safe" tuna label campaign that has reduced the fishing boat slaughter of these marvelous marine mammals, following a grass-roots consumer boycott and then U.S. law in 1990. The killing of dolphins by tuna netting has dropped from 130,000 a year in 1986 to fewer than 3,000 in 1996.
Now the White House wants to overturn this remarkable success, arguing that other nations will violate the rules anyway and that "dolphin safe" methods needlessly kill young tuna, sea turtles, sharks and other creatures.
But the primary motive appears to be appeasement of Mexico and other Latin American fishing countries that have refused to adopt dolphin-safe fishing measures -- but demand access to U.S. consumers, who buy a third of the global tuna catch.
Maryland Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest pushed this bill through the House, though it centers on fishing in the Eastern Pacific, where tuna schools travel beneath pods of dolphins.
The legislation would permit chasing, encircling and purse-seining of dolphins with their tuna companions; observers would certify that no dolphins were killed and the catch would earn the dolphin-safe label in U.S. sales.
In other times, Mexico and other Pacific tuna fishers would have simply adopted U.S. rules, to sell their catch and to show environmental concern. Today they are relying on international trade treaties to force the United States to weaken its own dolphin protection rules as "unfair" to poorer nations.
Scientific study is needed to reduce incidental kills of other species as bycatch of tuna fishing. The Cousteau Institute suggests a small tax on the tuna fleet and canners to support research. That's a better approach.
While dolphins still die under U.S. rules today, the proposed law would kill many more, not only by netting but by stress of the chase. It would destroy the value of the "dolphin safe" label backed by U.S. companies, who would be hurt most. All protection would rest on the dubious independence of observers, whose life and livelihood depend on fishing boat crews.
More than a U.S. marketing label, "dolphin safe" is a message of success, a call to the world for saner stewardship of marine creatures.
Pub Date: 7/27/97