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Questions & Answers

Does the U.S. "dolphin-safe label ensure that no dolphins are killed or seriously injured?

No. The U.S. definition of "dolphin-safe" that includes the standard "no dolphins were killed or seriously injured" language only apples to tuna caught in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) Ocean, and very little tuna from the ETP is sold in the United States. For tuna caught elsewhere, the U.S. rules expressly allows for the use of the "dolphin-safe" label even if thousands of dolphins are killed or seriously injured during the harvesting of tuna.

For all tuna caught in the ETP, an independent observer must certify both purse seine nets were not set on dolphins and that no dolphins were killed or seriously injured. For tuna caught outside of the ETP, there is no independent observer. Instead the captain of each vessel simply has to self-certify that purse seine nets were not set on dolphins. There is no method of verifying the self-certification. In fact, there are official reports that purse seine nets are in fact set on dolphins (and even whales) in the Western Pacific Ocean. Nonetheless all tuna from the Western Pacific Ocean can be labeled "dolphin-safe" under the current U.S. labeling practices.


Does the U.S. "dolphin-safe" label ensure that no other marine animals are harmed?

No. The current "dolphin-safe" labeling practices effectively encourage fishing methods that kill unacceptably high amounts of sharks, turtles, juvenile tuna and seabirds, not to mention dolphins. The most disturbing aspect of the current "dolphin-safe" labeling practices is that they are neither tracked nor verified and fail to ensure that dolphins and other marine animals are not harmed. In fact, scientific studies indicate that thousands of dolphins are killed during the harvesting of U.S. "dolphin-safe" tuna. None of that tuna is caught in the ETP.


What does this mean for consumers?

The current U.S. "dolphin-safe" labeling practices mean that consumers can't know whether their tuna is dolphin-safe or not. They can, however, be assured that it is definitely not eco-safe. Consumer Reports says that "because independent verification of [dolphin-safe] claims--by observers who board fishing boats or make surprise visits to canners to inspect captains' logs--is not universal, the logo is not an ironclad guarantee that the tuna in any given can was caught according to the standard.


What is the origin of the current U.S. "dolphin-safe" label?

The tuna-dolphin issue has a long, complex and emotion history going back to the 1980s. At that time, tuna fishing by setting on dolphins in the ETP resulted in the death of more than 100,000 dolphins annually, largely at the hands of the U.S. fleet. Responding to the evidence of an ecological tragedy, Congress enacted legislation in the early 1990s that imposed an embargo on tuna imports caught with purse seine nets in the ETP and prevented the use of the U.S. "dolphin-safe" label on tuna caught by this particular method. In response, the U.S. fleet abandoned the ETP and moved the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.

Soon after, the nations that continued fishing in the ETP, in coordination with the U.S. government, adopted new fishing equipment and techniques to protect dolphins. They also created a system under which an independent observer onboard each fishing vessel monitors whether any dolphins are killed or seriously injured. There are no such protections for dolphins outside the ETP.


What is bycatch?

Bycatch refers to any non-target sea-life caught dead or alive during the tuna fishing process. The primary non-tuna marine animals caught during tuna fishing are sharks, turtles, juvenile tunas, seabirds and dolphins. The Pew Environment Group describes bycatch as "one of the most vexing issues confronting the global fishing industry. [Bycatch] poses significant ecological, social and economic challenges." Because of human dependence on commercial fishing as a method of food production, environmental and industry groups agree that while it cannot be eliminated entirely, bycatch must be minimized. The effort to minimize bycatch and protect the marine ecosystem is the responsibility of the fishing industry, environmental organizations, trade groups and consumer.


What is eco-safe tuna?

Eco-safe tuna is caught using fishing methods that minimize harm to all marine life. One category of eco-safe tuna is defined by the standards of the internationally acclaimed Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program (AIDCP), a legally binding, multilateral agreement on dolphin conservation and ecosystem management in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) Ocean. The AIDCP label is:

  • Backed by 100% independent observer coverage, paid for by the fishing industry
  • Supported by tracking and verification systems from catch to can
  • Enforced by legally binding laws and regulations
  • Transparent
  • Supported by science
  • Guarantee that no dolphins were observed to have been harmed during the capture of the tuna


What can consumers do to help promote eco-safe tuna?

Get the facts.

The complexity of the issue makes deception and fraud by financially self-interested special interest groups not only easy but also profitable. Consider the following. According to a recent national poll, 59% of U.S. consumers thought that "dolphin-safe" meant that no dolphins were killed or injured during the capture of the tuna. 22% of U.S. consumers thought "dolphin-safe" mean that no dolphin meat is in the can. Both are incorrect. Get the facts on what "dolphin-safe" really means.

Spread the word.

Talk to your family, friends, neighbors and colleagues about the true nature of current tuna labeling practices and the need for a more sustainable approach to tuna fishing.

Demand new labeling standards.

Congress has the power and the obligation to fix this problem of consumer deception. The ruling by the World Trade Organization stipulates that U.S. lawmakers have until July 13, 2013 to align current labeling standards with the requirements to fulfill the stated objective of the measure to fully and accurately inform consumers in ensuring them no dolphins were harmed in the capture of tuna bearing such a label. Call or e-mail your Member of Congress today. Let them know that you support new labeling standards to ensure that tuna is not only dolphin safe but also eco-safe, and that U.S. labeling standards should be determined by the Department of Commerce and not by special interest groups like Earth Island Institute.


Does every country follow the same rules for tuna fishing?

The deceptive U.S. "dolphin safe" labeling standard has been applied in different markets around the world, causing consumer confusion and distorting markets for tuna globally.  More important, the creation of this false certification has caused international fishing fleets to dramatically increase the use of FAD fishing, a method of fishing that has had devastating impacts on the sustainability of fisheries globally, according to Greenpeace, Pew Trusts and others. Fishing on FADs results in incredibly high levels of bycatch and discards of millions of sharks, billfish, sea turtles, juvenile fishes and dolphins.


What does the 2012 World Trade Organization ruling mean?

The WTO ruled that the U.S. measure was discriminatory because it creates an illegitimate distinction focusing on one method of sustainable fishing for tuna in one fishery (the ETP) while disregarding indisputable evidence of harm to dolphins that is occurring in the rest of the world.  This, the WTO found, created an unjustifiable discrimination between tuna caught in the ETP and tuna caught elsewhere.

The fact is that, except for the ETP, the dolphin safe label does not provide any certification at all about mortalities or injuries of dolphins caused in the capture of the tuna, even though very significant mortalities do in fact occur.  In addition, it does not provide any independent observer certification that dolphins were not encircled to capture the tuna - only the self-certification of an economically interested captain of the fishing vessel.

The United States has been given until July of 2013 for conform its dolphin safe law and regulations with its obligations under international agreements and to make adjustments so that the claims made to consumers are actually backed up by the results of the law and its implementation.


Why would special interest groups deliberately mislead consumers about tuna?

Groups like Earth Island Institute (EII) are for-profit enterprises that have raised millions from unsuspecting individuals who believed the claims by EII that their so-called "certification" guarantees that no dolphins are killed or seriously injured during the capture of "dolphin safe" labeled tuna. This has been proven to be false. EII has forced, by threatening blacklisting and boycotts, canners, processors, distributor and retailers around the world to conform to their "certification" scheme and, in the case of canners and processors, directly or indirectly pay EII in order to be kept off their blacklist.


How many dolphins are currently killed annually during tuna fishing?

Because of the existence of the Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program (AIDCP) in the ETP, which has 100% independent observer coverage and a multilateral tracking and verification system, we know that incidental mortality in the ETP is around 1,000 dolphins per year, or about 0.001% of the population. However, outside the ETP, where virtually ALL the tuna is treated as "dolphin-safe" by current U.S. law, we have no idea how high the incidental mortality rate is because of extremely low levels of independent observer coverage. Even where there is independent observer coverage, the observers are not trained to accurately estimate bycatch. In the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, where the U.S. fleet catches its tuna, we know that incidental mortality of dolphins and other marine animals far exceed the ETP. Studies by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service estimate dolphin mortalities in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean to be as high as 30,000 per year. Yet all of this tuna is considered "dolphin-safe" under current U.S. law.

Tuna Truth Squad