What does “dolphin-safe tuna” mean, and how can I make sure that the tuna I buy is “dolphin-safe”?

What does “dolphin-safe tuna” mean, and how can I make sure that the tuna I buy is “dolphin-safe”?

—Charlie Vestner, San Francisco, CA

Biologists estimate that, since the beginning of large-scale commercial fishing in the late 1950s, more than 10 million dolphins have been drowned when inadvertently snared in the huge underwater driftnets meant to catch tuna and other fish. Driftnets, which can extend 50 miles as they are left to drag overnight, are indiscriminate killing tools often referred to as “walls of death.” In addition to dolphins, large numbers of whales, sharks and other non-target species die every day in driftnets. The industry refers to these as “by-catch” and they are usually just tossed back overboard.

Driftnet fishing has been illegal in American waters since passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972. Yet seafood companies were able to source their products from fishing fleets in other countries not subject to U.S. law. By the late 1980s, fishing fleets around the world were deploying some 30,000 miles of netting daily to meet a steadily growing demand for seafood.

After public outcry over the needless killing of dolphins, Congress amended the MMPA in 1990 to establish a “dolphin-safe” labeling system so consumers could find tuna caught without the use of driftnets. Meanwhile, the U.N. followed suit in 1993 by instituting a global moratorium on driftnet fishing. Biologists estimate that these measures have saved millions of dolphins over the last decade.

However, since the early 1990s the U.S. government has gradually been weakening the standards for which companies can use the “dolphin-safe” label on their cans. In 1995, the World Trade Organization pressured the Clinton administration to lift its embargo on tuna from Mexico and other countries less concerned about the harmful effects of driftnet fishing. The Bush administration is currently seeking to further weaken dolphin protection efforts by allowing for the importation of driftnet-caught tuna as long as fishermen see no visual evidence of dolphin snaring while harvesting their catches.

While the U.S. government’s definition of “dolphin-safe” may not mean what it used to, the top three American tuna sellers—Starkist, Bumblebee and Chicken of the Sea—have vowed to avoid distribution and sale of tuna from fishing fleets that use driftnets. And according to Defenders of Wildlife, a number of major grocery store chains—including A&P, Albertson”s, IGA, Kmart, Publix, Safeway and Walmart—stock only dolphin-safe tuna. Meanwhile, restaurant chains such as Subway, Carl’s Jr., Olive Garden and Red Lobster serve only dolphin-safe tuna. Tuna consumers who stick to these brands, stores and eating establishments will know their lunch did not cause hundreds of needless dolphin deaths.

CONTACTS: Defenders of Wildlife Save-the-Dolphins Campaign, (202) 682-9400, www.defenders.org/wildlife/new/dolphins.html; Earth Trust, (808) 261-5339, www.earthtrust.org; Starkist, (800) 252-1587, www.starkist.com/faqs.html; Bumble Bee, www.bumblebee.com/faq.jsp; Chicken of the Sea, www.chickenofthesea.com/dolphin_safe.aspx.