Is Dolphin Safe Tuna Good For the Ocean?

Since 1990 it has been easy for consumers in the US and Europe to choose Dolphin Safe or Dolphin Friendly Tuna from the grocery store.

Fueled by international outrage after a video was released of dolphins caught in tuna nets in 1988 Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) was able to develop standards for dolphin safe tuna fishing. But what are the actual regulations for tuna to be certified Dolphin Safe?

As I started my research for this post I was completely blown away by the events that lead to the original Dolphin Safe Tuna Warning. So I have given some highlights of a history lesson below. If you remember these events yourself or aren’t interested in reading the whole thing click on the button to skip to info about current Dolphin Safe Regulations!

Here is an abbreviated list of events that occurred leading up to the Earth Island International Marine Mammal Project developing the Dolphin Safe tuna fishing regulations in 1990:

  • For decades dolphins have been used to help locate schools of tuna. No one knows why but for some reason schools of tuna can often be found swimming below pods of dolphins. Fishermen find the pods gliding on the surface of the water and deploy their lines. Then, with the simultaneous development of plastic based nets that wouldn’t deteriorate in the salt water and hydraulic power boats new fishing methods began to be used.
  • One such method is purse-seining (think of cinching a purse closed). Boats use huge nets to surround the school and then cinch the top closed. For several years tuna companies would surround dolphins (called dolphin-setting) and pick up dolphins and tuna indiscriminately.
  • Dolphins were protected by the Marine Mammal Protection act of 1972 meaning; they could not be killed, captured, hunted or harassed. A provision in 1981 allowed the boats in the US tuna fleet to kill 20,500 dolphins per year.
  • Sam LaBudde, a biologist, talked his way into a job as a cook on a Panamanian Tuna Fishing Boat and took along his video camera to film the realities of the industry. The footage showed the massacre of dolphins trapped in the fishing nets or crushed by the winch on board. LaBudde was quoted by The Times saying, “You could hear them shrieking. In one set we killed 200 dolphin to catch 10 tuna.”

It is estimated that in 20 years over 6 million dolphins were killed by tuna fishing vessels.

-Here is some of the original footage from LaBudde-

  • The footage and the first hand account of working on a tuna fishing vessel started a ripple of outrage throughout the US as it exposed the realities of the industry. Though the first protest was only a group of 20 people with signs in Long Beach, California.
  • A world wide boycott and pressure from conservationists lead to the implementation of the Dolphin Safe Tuna label which is now enforced by the US Government and the Truth in Advertising Act.

Following these events as the public turned on the industry a lot of people in high places said a lot of dumb stuff (as per usual). Here are some of my favorites:

“It may be 5% of the total market caught this way (dolphin-setting)– but you are talking about stopping a huge industry. What are you going to do, put a fence around 8 million square miles of ocean?” Robert Solomon senior biologist for the Porpoise Rescue Foundation. Nope just talking about implementing reasonable and completely obtainable restrictions on the destruction of a protected species. Have a little faith dude.

“Without an allowable kill rate you would shut down the tuna industry,” Charlie Fullerton, director of the NATIONAL MARINE FISHERIES SERVICE. Honesty WTF. This guy was so far off. Since 1995 The Dolphin Safe label standards has included that to carry the label ZERO dolphins can be killed or seriously injured, even accidentally. **Note on this at the bottom of the page.**

Saved the best for last:

“Not buying tuna does not save one dolphin’s life. Foreign fleets can simply turn their backs on the US and sell to Europe,” Davide Burney from the US Tuna Foundation. Wrong Again. The world-wide tuna boycott lead to the top three tuna companies into switching who they were buying their product from and now over 800 dolphin safe tuna companies are in existence.

Ok so I have finished the history less and tangent about the origin of the Dolphin Safe Tuna Label from IMMP, which is now enforced by the US government and the Truth In Advertising Act.

But is Dolphin Safe Tuna really Good for the Ocean?

Unfortunately Dolphin Safe is really only beneficial for dolphins as it only restricts the use of ONE type of fishing ‘dolphin setting’. Several companies that have taken the Dolphin Safe pledge have switched to FADs or Fish Aggregating Devices in combination with a purse-seine method of retrieval, which is called log-setting.

An FAD is a man-made device is used to cast a shadow in the water under which fish congregate (ie; a log). Log-set fishing in particular has almost twice the effect on the ecosystem (Gerrodette et al., 2012 source below) as the dolphin-setting method, which is the only method not allowed by the dolphin safe label.

The high impact on the ecosystem is primarily due to bycatch, especially in the case of log-setting. This is because the use of FADs along with the purse-seine method causes anything under the FAD to be caught indiscriminately. This means that turtles, sharks, rays and protected fish species can also be injured or killed in these.

While the IMMP does require the companies that carry the Dolphin Safe label to release sharks and sea turtles if caught alive, they do not restrict the use of the purse seine method. Even more upsetting is that this is the project’s official line (as of 2018) on Shark Finning is We encourage companies to ban the removal of fins from sharks on board.(If you didn’t know shark finning is when a shark is caught, brought on board, the fins are cut off and while the shark is still alive its body is thrown back into the water causing the animal to drown.)

To truly support sustainable fishing you should switch to tuna that is caught by pole and line (the old fashion way)!

How difficult is this to do? Well this depends on the area you live in but Greenpeace has an amazing list of tuna companies and how they acquire their products. Here is my synopsis, but the full list can be found on the link below:

  • Bumble Bee- Not sustainable
  • Chicken of the Sea- Not sustainable
  • StarKist- Not sustainable
  • Aldi- Northern Catch FAD-free and pole and line skipjack Sustainable
  • Costco- Kirkland Signature skipjack- Sustainable
  • Hy-Vee- Responsible Choice tuna skipjack and albacore –Sustainable
  • Trader Joe’s- Sustainable
  • Target- Simply Balanced skipjack and albacore –Sustainable
  • Whole Foods- 365 Everyday Value –Sustainable

Look for the Blue Label or for the phrase ‘Pole and Line Caught’

Check out the full list: https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/oceans/tuna-guide/

You can also look at the MSC certified sustainable seafood list: https://www.msc.org/uk/what-you-can-do/eat-sustainable-seafood

**It is important to note that according to NOAA to certify as dolphin safe, “U.S. regulations require a written statement from the captain of the vessel, in most fisheries worldwide, certifying that no purse seine net or other fishing gear was intentionally deployed on or used to encircle dolphins during the fishing trip in which the tuna were caught, and that no dolphins were killed or seriously injured in the sets or other gear deployments in which the tuna were caught. For trips beginning on or after May 21, 2016, captains must also certify completion of the Dolphin-Safe Captain’s Training Course.” A written statement is hardly proof that zero dolphins were killed during the fishing, but there are also ship visits and inspections. It is theorized by many that Dolphin Safe Labels are not as protective as they could be.**

Ready to get technical?
This is from National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Fisheries website -(https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/marine-mammal-protection/dolphin-safe)
“A dolphin-safe label is intended to show compliance with U.S. laws and regulations of tuna fishing operations.  The Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act (16 U.S.C. §1385) describes the conditions in which tuna product may be labeled dolphin-safe in the United States. NOAA has implemented the Act by regulation, which among other things includes more specific documentary requirements; the regulations are codified at part 216, subpart H, of Title 50 of the Code of Federal Regulations.”
-Gerrodette et al., 2012: https://swfsc.noaa.gov/uploadedFiles/Divisions/PRD/Programs/ETP_Cetacean_Assessment/Gerrodette%20et%20al%202012.pdf

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