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What is Dolphin-Safe Tuna?

Do Some Cans of Tuna Contain Dolphin Meat?

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Image © Doris Lin 2012, licensed to About.com, Inc.
Updated October 29, 2012

Environmental and animal welfare groups promote "dolphin-safe tuna," but the dolphin-safe label is in danger of being weakened in the U.S. and some animal protection groups do not support dolphin-safe tuna.

Do Some Cans of Tuna Contain Dolphin Meat?

No, cans of tuna do not contain dolphin meat. While dolphins are sometimes killed in tuna fishing (see below), the dolphins do not end up in the cans with the tuna.

How are Dolphins Harmed in Tuna Fishing?

Two types of tuna fishing are notorious for killing dolphins: Purse seine nets and driftnets.

Purse seine nets: Dolphins and yellowfin tuna often swim together in large schools, and because dolphins are more visible and closer to the surface than tuna, the fishing boats will look for dolphins to find the tuna. The boats will then set a purse seine net in a circle around both species and capture dolphins along with the tuna. Purse seine nets are giant nets, typically 1,500 - 2,500 meters long and 150-250 meters deep, with a drawstring at the bottom and floats at the top. Some nets are equipped with fish aggregating devices that attract fish and help prevent the fish from escaping before the net can be closed.

In addition to dolphins, the animals who are caught unintentionally - the "incidental catch," can include sea turtles, sharks, and other fish. The crew is ususally able to release sea turtles back to the ocean unharmed, but the fish usually die.

The problem with dolphins being killed in purse seine nets occurs mainly in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that between 1959 and 1976, over 6 million dolphins were killed in purse seine nets in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean.

Driftnets: EarthTrust, an environmental NGO, calls driftnets "the most destructive fishing technology ever devised by humankind." Driftnets are giant nylon nets that drift behind a boat. The nets have floats on top and may or may not have weights on the bottom, to keep the net hanging vertically in the water. Driftnets come in a variety of mesh sizes, depending on the target species, but they are a wall of death, killing everyone who gets caught in them.

The United Nations banned driftnets over 2.5 kilometers long in 1991. Previously, driftnets up to 60 km long were in use and legal. According to EarthTrust, before the ban, driftnets killed over a hundred thousand dolphins and small cetaceans every year, along with millions of seabirds, tens of thousands of seals, thousands of sea turtles and great whales, and untold numbers of non-target fish. Pirate fisheries still use giant, illegal driftnets and will sometimes cut the nets loose to avoid getting caught, leaving these walls of death to continue drifting and killing indiscriminately for centuries to come.

Although dolphin deaths from both methods has been greatly reduced, a 2005 study titled, "Non-recovery of two spotted and spinner dolphin populations in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean" found that dolphin populations have been slow to recover.

Can Tuna be Caught Without Harming Dolphins?

Yes, a purse seine net can be made to release dolphins. After encircling both the tuna and dolphins, the boat can conduct a "backdown operation" in which a portion of the net is lowered enough for dolphins to escape. While this technique does save dolphins, it does not address other incidental catch issues, such as sharks and sea turtles.

Another way to catch fish without harming dolphins is long line fishing. Long line fishing uses a fishing line that is typically 250-700 meters long, with several branches and hundreds or thousands of baited hooks. While longline fishing does not kill dolphins, the incidental catch includes sharks, sea turtles and seabirds like albatross.

The Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act

In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act, 16 U.S.C. 1385, which charges the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with regulating dolphin-safe tuna claims. The dolphin-safe claim means that the tuna were not caught with drift nets, and that “no tuna were caught on the trip in which such tuna were harvested using a purse seine net intentionally deployed on or to encircle dolphins, and that no dolphins were killed or seriously injured in the sets in which the tuna were caught.” Not all tuna sold in the U.S. is dolphin-safe. To summarize:

  • If the tuna were caught without driftnets and without chasing, encircling or killing dolphins, it can be sold in the US and is dolphin-safe.
  • If the tuna were caught by chasing and encircling dolphins, but no dolphins were killed or seriously injured (and other requirements are met), the tuna can be sold in the U.S. but cannot be called "dolphin-safe."
  • If the tuna was caught by chasing and encircling dolphins, and dolphins were killed, it cannot be sold in the U.S.

Of course, the above is a simplification of the law, which also requires tuna canners to file monthly reports and requires large tuna purse seine vessels must carry an observer. NOAA also conducts spot-checks to verify dolphin-safe claims. For more details on the NOAA's tuna tracking and verification program, click here. You can also read the full text of the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act here

International Law

International law also applies to the tuna/dolphin issue. In 1999, the United States signed the Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program (AIDCP). The other signatories include Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, European Union, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Vanuatu, and Venezuela. The AIDCP seeks to eliminate dolphin mortality in tuna fishing. Congress then amended the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to effct the AIDCP in the United States. The AIDCP definition of "dolphin-safe" allows dolphins to be chased and encircled with nets, as long as dolphins are not killed or seriously injured. This definition differs from the U.S. definition, which does not permit the chasing or encircling of dolphins under the dolphin-safe label. According to the AIDCP, 93% of the sets made by chasing dolphins resulted in no deaths or serious injuries to dolphins.

Challeges to the "Dolphin-Safe" Label

Despite the dolphin-safe label being voluntary, and the fact that a fishery need not attain the dolphin-safe label in order to export tuna to the U.S., Mexico has twice challenged the U.S. "dolphin-safe" label as an unfair restriction on trade. In May of 2012, the World Trade Organization found that the current U.S. "dolphin-safe" label is "inconsistent with" the United States' obligations under the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade. In September, 2012, the U.S. and Mexico agreed that the U.S. would bring its "dolphin-safe" label in line with the WTO's recommendations and rulings by July of 2013. This is just one example of how free trade agreements hurt animals.

To some, this is yet another example of how environmental and animal protection are sacrificed in the name of free trade. Todd Tucker, research director for Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, states, “This latest ruling makes truth-in-labeling the latest casualty of so-called ‘trade’ pacts, which are more about pushing deregulation than actual trade . . . Members of Congress and the public will be very concerned that even voluntary standards can be deemed trade barriers.”

What's Wrong with Dolphin-Safe Tuna?

The UK-based Ethical Consumer site calls the dolphin-safe label "somewhat of a red herring" for several reasons. First, the vast majority of canned tuna is skipjack tuna, not yellowfin tuna. Skipjack tuna do not swim with dolphins, so they are never caught using dolphins. Also, the site points out that, "It has been estimated that saving one dolphin, by using (fish aggregating devices), costs 16,000 smaller or juvenile tuna, 380 mahimahi, 190 wahoo, 20 sharks and rays, 1200 triggerfish and other small fish, one marlin and ‘other’ animals." The very strong implication that "dolphin-safe" tuna is sustainable or more humane makes the label probelmatic.

Some animal protection groups object to dolphin-safe tuna because of the impact on tuna. Tuna and other fish populations are threatened by overfishing and from an animal rights perspective, eating tuna hurts tuna.

According to Sea Shepherd, bluefin tuna populations have fallen 85% since industrial fishing began, and current quotas are too high to be sustainable. Environmentalists and animal advocates were disappointed in 2010 when the parties to CITES refused to protect tuna.

In September of 2012, conservation experts called for better protections for tuna. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, five of the world's eight tuna species are threatened or nearly threatened. Amanda Nickson, Director of Global Tuna Conservation at the Pew Environment Group stated, "There is sufficient science available to set precautionary limits . . . If we wait five, 10 years for the science to be perfect, in the case of some species we may not have anything left to manage."

Aside from concerns about extinction and overfishing, fish are sentient beings. From an animal rights perspective, fish have a right to be free of human use and exploitation. Even if there were no danger of overfishing, each individual fish has certain inherent rights, just as dolphins, seabirds and sea turtles do. Buying dolphin-safe tuna recognizes the dolphin's rights, but fails to recognize the tuna's rights, which is why many animal protection groups do not support dolphin-safe tuna.

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