English | Español

Earth Island Institute: From Jekyll to Hyde

by Campaign for Eco-Safe Tuna
December 17, 2013

Earth Island Institute: From Jekyll to Hyde

Earth Island Institute has become the uncontested bridge troll of sustainable food labeling policy with a pay-to-play scheme cemented by a court ruling and sustained by the US Department of Commerce, with no small amount of support from Senator Barbara Boxer. Earth Island’s labeling scheme poses a serious threat to our planet’s marine life.



Earth Island Institute was founded in the perfect location for any organization looking to support breakout activism.  Berkeley California has been home to many cultural movements and amplified even more through public protests that grabbed the nation’s attention over the past half decade. Earth Island’s stated goal continues to be funding fledgling programs until they are able to fund themselves.


Earth Island Institute began funding the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP).The goal of the program was to empower consumers with knowledge about the destructive fishing practices that were killing dolphins en masse. At that time the ETP was an easy focal point for the fight against global dolphin mortalities, as dolphins and tuna hunt together there perhaps more than anywhere else in the world. There was a subsequent rise in consumer awareness, changes to the tuna industry, and in no small way, to the broader environmental movement. That same year, tuna canning companies began purchasing tuna from fishermen who do not kill dolphins. The tuna is labeled or certified “dolphin-safe” by Earth Island’s IMMP, which also received funding for the certification program. What better way to fund the labeling program--their logic went at the time--than to charge the companies selling the tuna a fee in exchange for not boycotting them?


The U.S. government responded to consumer (and thus, voter) pressure along with other governments, including Mexico, in negotiating and signing the voluntary La Jolla Agreement to reduce and ultimately effectively eliminate unintended dolphin mortalities in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. The agreement worked.


With the dolphin mortality issue managed, concerns grew among responsible environmental conservation NGO’s, including WWF, National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace and the Ocean Conservancy over the unintended consequences of the U.S. dolphin-safe labeling law – namely, fishermen were moving wholesale towards fishing on FADs in order to gain access to the dolphin-safe label and the market.  The extremely high level of wasteful bycatch of other marine species using this method was having an impact on the sustainability of fisheries.


Working hand in hand with these responsible conservation organizations, Mexico and the U.S. led the way towards the negotiation and adoption by the 15 nations participating in the ETP fishery of the Declaration of Panama, which built upon the La Jolla Agreement and made it legally binding on all the Parties.  The condition agreed to by the U.S. in exchange was to change the definition of “dolphin-safe” from a method-of-capture standard to one that really meant that no dolphins were killed or injured.


The U.S. Congress sought to implement the commitments under the Declaration of Panama with the adoption of the International Dolphin Conservation Program Act.  Congress acknowledged how well the La Jolla Agreement performed in protecting dolphins and naturally wanted to extend those protections to other forms of marine life: seabirds, sharks, turtles, juvenile tuna and non-tuna species of fish. Congress also wanted to recognize the successes of the multilaterally cooperative agreement and to lock those achievements in place.  Congress also acted in that legislation to, for the first time, really offer the consumers traceability and verifiability in the claims associated with the dolphin-safe label by changing the definition.


In the seven years after the enactment of the La Jolla Agreement, dolphin mortalities dropped by more than 99%. The United States became a world leader in dolphin conservation and stood poised to expand that role through enactment of the Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program, a legally binding multilateral agreement whose implementation Congress sanctioned in the 1997 IDCPA. Everything was coming together for the world’s ecosystems and sustainable fishing was within reach. Except for one thing. The expansion of these protections meant Earth Island’s narrowly-defined “dolphin-safe” label would no longer apply to canned tuna. The organization, desperate to preserve its most lucrative funding scheme, sued to block implementation of a critical part of the Declaration of Panama’s implementation: the changes to the definition of dolphin-safe labeling. They begin a misinformation campaign, claiming that rather than expanding protections to all forms of marine life, the IADCP was removing protections from dolphins. The case succeeded, and a U.S. court blocked the Congressional legislation, preventing protections for both dolphins and non-dolphin species indefinitely. To date, the U.S. has still not enacted the committed to changes to the so-called “dolphin-safe” standard as a result of Earth Island’s efforts to block it.


In the years since Earth Island stopped AIDCP implementation, FAD fishing has caused non-dolphin bycatch such as sharks to explode around the world while dolphin mortalities remain at record low levels in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Earth Island officially became a 501(c)(3), eligible for unlimited corporate donations. Its activity remains as murky as its donor list, which will certainly never be disclosed again. According to the organization’s annual filing for tax exemption, the International Marine Mammal Project continues to be the organization’s most profitable program. The IMMP still “oversees” the deceptive “dolphin-safe” label, which has caused extreme consumer confusion as the consumer movement of the early 1990s fades from memory. Studies suggest as many as one in four people believed the dolphin-safe label guaranteed no dolphin meat was in the can of tuna they were buying. Earth Island and its corporate donors remained shielded from any public backlash from promoting their destructive fishing practices.


Mexico successfully sued the United State over the deceptive nature of the dolphin-safe label at the World Trade Organization. The WTO ruled that Earth Island’s “dolphin-safe” label no longer represented a meaningful standard for the sustainability or marine safety of the fishing techniques it allows. A WTO panel also ruled that the label deceives consumers and keeps from them information about the tens of thousands of dolphins killed each year in the capture of tuna outside the ETP that bears the dolphin-safe label, and has been co-opted to become a discriminatory trade mechanism to keep international competition out of the U.S. market. The Earth Island Institute, paid well by U.S. fisheries, continues to oppose any change to this labeling scheme.


The U.S. announced changes to the regulation of dolphin-safe tuna that fail to address the consumer deception that made the old labels problematic. The draft regulations did not require the big three tuna companies to effectively disclose dolphin deaths outside the ETP or to disclose non-dolphin bycatch.


Sustainable fishing is becoming a reality among those nations who choose to embrace it. While Earth Island continues to bad-mouth competitors who refuse to pay for their false and deceptive labeling scheme, countries like Mexico have reduced dolphin mortalities to historic lows by added countless marine safety measures to their fishing practices. They have done this voluntarily, changing with the times and with a growing international understanding that fisheries must be stewards, not pillagers. But for the Earth Island Institute, its widely-criticized “dolphin-safe” program, and the U.S. fisheries that enjoy its protective deception, the pillaging-for-profit continues.