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).

The “Dolphin-Safe” Fiction

Well, we looked at the humane slaughter fiction, so why not another one?

This sort of story is the reason I don’t eat any seafood. No matter how many assurances you get that it is “safe,” or “sustainable,” or whatever, the truth is that you can’t really be sure, and that very little is what it seems when it comes to the fishing industry. Read the whole thing, but here is a key moment:

When we arrived, what we found totally broke our hearts. About 1000 beautiful, divine Spinner Dolphins were inside their big net, swimming in circles, afraid and confused. We saw a little baby dolphin outside the net swimming around like crazy trying to reach his family. I filmed it all. I filmed them pulling in the nets, I filmed when several of their guys, upon seeing us, jumped into the water to try to free any stuck dolphins.

The two daughters, OMG I LOVE them, wanted to get in and check it out so we jumped in and swam to the net and the sound was heartbreakingly deafening. The dolphins were crying out, making all kinds of strange sounds, and the little dolphin outside kept racing by, in a total panic.

Once the net was in more than half way, several more guys jumped into the water and the speed boats came out and they started to try to pull one side of the net down so that the dolphins could get out. This is the standard practice called “backing down” the net which if they do it, they are allowed to call their tuna “dolphin safe.” What a fricken JOKE!!! The dolphins were in total panic and confusion and totally stressed. Not only that, it took several times to get all the dolphins out, with over 45 minutes in between so the group was totally split up and freaked out. Not only that, but the guys were pounding on the water to frighten the dolphins into swimming out of the net but they were so afraid and confused that it just made it worse. (Read on).

I know there is a rational argument that says that the dolphin-safe program, for all its flaws, saves the lives of many dolphins. I believe that to be true. But I think it also encourages the consumption of tuna because it allows shoppers to buy tuna in good conscience, and to believe dolphins aren’t dying for their love of tuna. But as this story shows that is likely not the case. And if people clearly understood that eating tuna is killing dolphins, demand for tuna would go down, which might be an even better way to reduce dolphin deaths.

Maybe, instead of a dolphin-safe label,we should have a different label, which says: “The product you are about to consume kills dolphins.” That, arguably would save more dolphin lives than a flawed “dolphin-safe” program that obscures the truth of what really happens out there on the ocean. (Now that I think of it, a whole series of food labels, akin to cigarette warnings, which captured health and environmental impacts, would be awesome).