"Dolphin Death Act"
by Nathan LaBudde
Earth Island Institute Journal
On May 20, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives
passed HR 408, the new "dolphin death act," by a vote
of 262 to 166. Should this bill become law, thousands more dolphins
will die needlessly in tuna nets every year, and US consumers
will be left buying tuna mislabeled as "dolphin safe"-tuna
caught by chasing, encircling and capturing dolphins.
Last year, the House passed an identical bill by a wider margin
of 320 to 108. The 85 member Dolphin Safe Fair Trade Coalition,
spearheaded by Earth Island Institute, reacted to this year's
tighter vote with cautious optimism.
"The House vote clearly shows that public opinion is
growing against this legislation," said David Phillips, director
of Earth Island's International Marine Mammal Project. "People
don't want dolphin-deadly tuna showing up on their supermarket
shelves with phony dolphin-safe labels, and they don't want our
dolphin protection laws dismantled because of threats from the
Mexico currently is withholding data on its tuna fleets' violations
of dolphin protection rules and has suspended efforts to protect
dolphins under an international treaty because of Congress' failure
to pass the dolphin death act last year. Mexican officials have
threatened to refuse any protection for dolphins unless all tuna
embargoes are lifted and the dolphin-safe label is redefined.
Rep. George Miller (D-CA) expounded on Mexico's threat during
House debate: "Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and other nations
are trying a bit of environmental blackmail. They have said that
if we don't weaken our laws, if we don't allow dolphin-unsafe
tuna into this country, then they will go out and slaughter more
Miller called the bill "bad for the environment, bad
for trade policy and bad for consumers." He decried the fact
that the bill would double the allowable number of dolphins killed,
allow dolphin-deadly tuna to be sold in the US for the first time
in almost a decade and cede US sovereignty to the World Trade
Organization (WTO) to determine American consumer-labeling standards.
"We need to tighten our safety standards, not weaken
them," Rep. David Bonior (D-MI) said, noting that nearly
200 schoolchildren in Michigan contracted hepatitis A earlier
this year when contaminated Mexican strawberries entered the US
due to weak regulations.
"During the NAFTA debate four years ago, treaty proponents
promised that the agreement wouldn't be used to weaken US environmental
protections," Bonior said. "But today, common sense
measures such as increasing inspection of imported food, requiring
labels noting country of origin and providing consumers with the
other relevant information, are considered tantamount to restricting
trade; so this is an issue we confront with dolphin-safe tuna
Mexico has vowed to file a trade action against the US with
the WTO if Congress fails to pass the dolphin death act. Non-binding
review panels of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT,
the WTO's predecessor) have ruled in favor of Mexico on this issue
on three previous occasions, but GATT's general council never
enacted their recommendations.
Also at stake is the dolphin-safe tuna label. HR 408 would
permit fishing practices that employ speedboats to chase dolphins
to exhaustion and herd them into nets with exploding seal bombs.
These practices still could be called dolphin-safe, as long as
no one observes dolphins actually dying in the nets. The bill
ignores the fact that many injured and traumatized dolphins die
shortly after the chase and capture. Nor does it acknowledge the
long term physiological damage to survivors.
"There is a mounting body of scientific evidence that
suggests chasing and encircling dolphins with purse seine nets
leads to delayed mortality and decreased reproductive potential,"
Rep. Michael Bilirakis (D~FL) said.
Rep. Charles Schumer (D-NY) warned that if HR 408 is enacted,
it also will reopen a drug pipeline into the US "
According to US government estimates, two-thirds of the cocaine
entering Mexico comes through the eastern tropical Pacific,"
he said. "Two hundred and seventy-five tons a year, and most
of those drugs end up in American neighborhoods and schools. A
tuna fishing boat could crisscross the eastern Pacific over and
over, and no one could tell whether it was chasing dolphins or
"In one instance, the rusting hull of the Don Celso appeared
to be a normal fishing vessel-until the US Coast Guard stopped
the boat, searched it and found 7 tons of cocaine concealed on
board," Schumer continued. "And we know that these successful
interceptions are only a fraction of the cocaine moving through
the Pacific. And there is now substantial evidence that Colombian
drug cartels and their Mexican allies have moved to gain control
of many legitimate tuna fishing fleets to use them. . . in their
smuggling activities." But Rep. Jim Saxton (R-NJ) dismissed
the drug issue as a "red herring" and offered letters
from White House drug czar Bill McCaffrey and State Department
official Barbara Laskin stating, "this legislation is likely
to aid in the fight against drug smuggling by increasing the level
of scrutiny over the activities of vessels involved in this fishery."
Dolphin-death act proponents in the House downplay the tuna
/ drug connection and imply that the simple act of placing Inter-American
Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) observers on tuna boats would
serve to deter cocaine smugglers.
The IATTC tuna boat observer program provides a well-documented
case study in how observers can be intimidated and coerced to
falsify dolphin mortality records. In the 10-year history of the
program, the IATTC has never levied a fine against a single member
nation for killing dolphins.
In the same period, the tuna fishing industry caused the deaths
of hundreds of thousands of dolphins.
HR 408 presumes that a lone IATTC observer can oversee fishing
sets that involve chasing and netting entire dolphin pods over
an area as large as a football field. The bill also assumes that
observers will report violations of the "dolphin safe"
guidelines to the ship's captain-a decision fraught with serious
At a time when the economies and top to-bottom political leadership
of IATTC countries like Mexico and Colombia are married to the
free flow of narcodollars, it seems highly unlikely that a lone
IATTC observer would risk offending such powerful forces to document
dead dolphins or report cocaine smuggling.
While environmentalists, congressional officials and foreign
lobbyists wage the battle over the dolphin death act, it should
be remembered that American consumers, led by schoolchildren,
first demanded dolphin-safe tuna. That desire has not changed.
For more information, contact Earth Island's International
Marine Mammal Project, 300 Broadway No. 28, San Francisco, CA
94133, (415) 788-3666.