Report: Tuna fishing harms dolphins

By STEVE MITCHELL, UPI Science Correspondent  |  Dec. 6, 2002 at 6:12 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 6 (UPI) -- Animal rights groups Friday released a secretly obtained report from the federal government showing dolphin populations are harmed by tuna fishing.

The release comes just weeks before a final decision by the Bush Administration is due on whether to weaken criteria for dolphin-safe labels on canned tuna.

An anonymous source inside the Department of Commerce leaked the report to the Earth Island Institute. Both EII and the Humane Society of the United States have posted it on their respective Web sites, the institute's David Phillips told United Press International.

The report concludes a tuna-fishing practice known as purse-seine netting, in which fishermen encircle dolphin schools with nets, continues to have a detrimental impact on dolphin species and prevents them from recovering from years of decimation. Mexican fishermen use the technique, which is banned in the United States, to catch tuna because these fish often swim with dolphins.

The current definition designating the dolphin-safe label does not allow this type of tuna fishing because dolphins often are killed when they are caught inadvertently in the nets. As the report states, purse-seine netting has killed as many as 6 million dolphins and, despite improvements in purse-seine netting, "fewer than 3,000 dolphins" are still killed every year.

In 1997, the Clinton administration proposed weakening the definition to allow purse-seine netting due to an appeal by the Mexican government to allow its tuna to be imported into the United States. This was challenged by animal rights groups and ultimately Congress ordered the Commerce Department to study the issue to determine if it was harming dolphin populations.

According to the report, authored by the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, states purse-seine netting probably is having a much more destructive impact beyond those dolphins found dead in the nets. The technique also causes stress that can affect survival and reproduction. It catches mother dolphins, separating them from their nursing calves, which subsequently will die. In addition, some dead dolphins probably go undetected and some probably are unreported.

"This very well may be the smoking gun as to why the dolphin populations are in such trouble," Phillips said.

Animal rights groups maintain the Commerce Department wants to ignore the report and weaken the restrictions of the dolphin-safe label. "They've essentially promised the Mexicans that they are going to find a way to let them bring their tuna in regardless of the science," Phillips said.

The agency is under heavy pressure from the U.S. State Department, which is pushing for easing the dolphin-safe restrictions because it wants help from Mexico on issues such as the illegal drug trade and tariffs on imported U.S. goods, he said. Although the report was completed in August, the Commerce Department has not released it or made a ruling on the issue because "it makes it difficult for them to try to issue such a finding" that purse-seine netting is not damaging dolphin populations, Phillips said.

Commerce Secretary Donald Evans has until Dec. 31 to make his decision.

"Obviously (Evan's) going to be weighing all the information to make an informed decision by the end of the month," Trevor Francis, spokesman for the secretary, told UPI. "He has been provided with a lot of information that he's going to use to make this decision." Francis declined to say whether Evans was leaning in one direction or the other.

Gordon Helm, spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Commerce agency handling calls about the report, also declined to say which direction Evans was leaning.

"The Secretary has until December 31 to review all of the information ... and to make his decision and any discussion before then would be premature," Helm told UPI.

Evans "can only make one decision and support it with science, and if he rules any other way we believe it would be a political decision," Kitty Block, special counsel to the Humane Society's United Nations and treaties department, told UPI.

If Evans decides there is no significant adverse impact to the dolphins, "we will likely sue again," Block said. "We're not giving up on this. It's simply consumer fraud" to have a dolphin-safe label on a product that knowingly kills dolphins, she said.

"Mexico can import all the tuna they want, it just doesn't get the dolphin-safe label," Block said. "Mexico just wants the coveted dolphin-safe label but not change their fishing practices, which we find ridiculous," she said.

"If the Mexicans can dump tuna in the big U.S. market with a dolphin-safe label, even though it doesn't meet that standard, that would be a big opening for them," Phillips said. It would give them an advantage over the U.S. tuna fishing industry, he said.

U.S. tuna fishers have said they will maintain their dolphin-safe practices regardless of the decision by the Commerce Department, Block said.

The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act bans the killing of dolphins and other whales, Phillips said, adding that dolphins, unlike fish, have slow reproduction rates and it takes them much longer to recover from drops in their numbers. Tuna, on the other hand, are fish and can recover more quickly from fishing losses, he said.

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