Can You Eat Tuna Without Harming Dolphins?

My sense is: no.

This is a very complex subject. And while I applaud all efforts to create and enforce “dolphin-safe” practices, every time I read about how tuna are fished across the oceans, and the regimes used to try and protect dolphins, it just seems apparent that the problem of dolphin bycatch (along with bycatch of many other types of fish), as well as holes in the various dolphin-safe regimes and their enforcement, are significant.

For example, here is the Washington Post, on Mexico’s argument that US dolphin-safe regimes unfairly burden Mexican tuna fishermen:

Mexico’s challenge is an attempt to increase its $7.5 million share of a U.S. tuna import market worth more than a half-billion dollars. But it also raises questions for U.S. consumers about whether the tuna they eat is truly “dolphin safe” — not sold at the expense of a mammal Americans cherish.

There is no sure way to catch tuna without harming other marine life. Dolphins, as well as sharks, turtles and other animals, are unintentionally killed as bycatch in the quest for tuna.

The central question facing governments, corporations, environmentalists and consumers is how much is too much, and whether using a huge net to catch tuna in one part of the ocean is any worse than using them to catch it in other parts.

The World Trade Organization recently agreed with Mexico’s claim that U.S. regulations in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, where the Mexican fleet fishes, are far more restrictive than they are for the western and central Pacific where the U.S. fleet fishes.

In response to the WTO ruling, the United States proposed a new rule to strengthen protections for dolphins wherever tuna is fished. The comment phase for the rule closed last week.

The proposal, drafted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has one change that irks Mexico — allowing captains in the western and central Pacific to self-certify they are not taking dolphins as bycatch.

“The objective . . . was to assure no dolphins were injured, and you’re not doing that,” said Mark J. Robertson, president of Potomac Global Advisors, which advises companies and governments in international disputes. “How practical is it to trust captains to say how many dolphins they harmed?”

There is no question that the dolphin-safe regimes, and efforts to improve them, save dolphin lives. But there is also no question that eating tuna currently (and probably always will) involves the death of dolphins and other fish species. So anyone who truly cares about dolphins, or wants to eat ethically, should simply stop eating tuna (and, yes, I believe that true ethical eating requires not eating ANY fish, but I find the moral cost of tuna, likely involving hundreds of thousands of dead dolphins every year, to be particularly egregious).

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