• U.S.

CHICKEN OF THE SEA?

3 minute read
Eugene Linden

CALL IT THE FLIPPER FLIP-FLOP. A squabble over attempts to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act is forging some strange alliances even as it opens up a bitter rift in the environmental movement. In the end, it may be business interests–once the villains in the piece but now terrified of a boycott by dolphin-loving consumers–that decide the matter.

At issue are amendments to the 1972 act, which forbade imports of tuna caught using nets to encircle dolphins that for unexplained reasons swim together with tuna in parts of the Pacific. Before the act, this method suffocated as many as 500,000 of the marine mammals each year. After 1972, American fishermen drastically reduced their dolphin kill, but in the 1980s the number of dolphins killed by foreign boats rose dramatically.

Then in 1989, environmental activist Sam LaBudde galvanized public opinion by releasing dramatic videos of drowning dolphins. In 1990, StarKist, the world’s largest tuna canner, responding to consumer sentiment, announced that it would buy only tuna caught by other methods. That same year, LaBudde’s group, Earth Island Institute, successfully sued the Bush Administration to bar tuna imports from Mexico and other Latin American countries that failed to protect dolphins. European nations followed suit, which extended the embargo to an estimated 80% of the canned-tuna consumer market.

Mexico promptly filed an international trade complaint. But it also took steps to reduce dolphin deaths, and by 1995 the number of dolphins killed by tuna fishermen annually had dropped below 5,000 worldwide–demonstrating, Mexicans assert, that fishing boats can encircle dolphins without killing the animals. The U.S. and a coalition of green groups met with Latin nations in Panama last October to hammer out new guidelines for environmentally sound tuna fishing. Their declaration permits encirclement so long as onboard observers certify that no dolphin drowned during the netting operation, and its provisions became the basis for a bill introduced by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens that would, among other things, lift the U.S. embargo. California Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, has introduced a competing bill that would also lift the sanctions on the Latin nations but maintain them on individual vessels that catch tuna by encirclement of dolphins.

Proving once again that politics makes strange bedfellows, the Clinton Administration has sided with Stevens–a leader of Republican efforts to roll back environmental regulations–as have the Environmental Defense Fund, the World Wildlife Federation and the Center for Marine Conservation. They argue that unless the Latin nations are given credit for their efforts, they will simply resume their bad old ways. Meanwhile, Earth Island Institute, the Sierra Club, the Humane Society and Friends of the Earth vehemently oppose the Stevens bill and support Boxer’s, charging that the delegation in Panama sold out the dolphins to free trade.

Proponents of the Boxer bill say complicated enforcement procedures and the potential for corruption under the Stevens bill will mean that dolphin deaths will rise again. Proponents of the Stevens bill argue that the alternatives to encircling dolphins have proved destructive to both tuna populations and other species, such as sea turtles and sharks. All that leaves Anthony O’Reilly, chairman of H.J. Heinz Co., which owns StarKist, loath to make any change that might be misinterpreted by dolphin-loving consumers. “I believe the definition should not be changed in the absence of consensus of scientists and public opinion,” he says. And he’s the one who has to move the goods.

–By Eugene Linden

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