Environmental groups asked a federal court Tuesday to halt a rule that
they say would weaken the "dolphin safe" label on canned tuna and dramatically
increase the number of deaths among the ocean mammals.
For 12 years, the label had guaranteed consumers that the tuna was caught
by nets that did not surround and harm dolphins. But in December, a new rule
by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration applied the label to
tuna captured in encircling nets.
The Earth Island Institute and six other groups asked the U.S. District
Court in San Francisco for an injunction to the new rule, arguing that science
-- and not trade concerns -- should guide environmental policy.
The fishing practice allowed by the new rule continues to kill, injure and
harass thousands of dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean every year,
they say. If the new rule remains in effect, it will open the U.S. market to
supplies from Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Vanuatu, where vessels chase
down and encircle dolphins to catch the tuna that swim with them.
If the tougher label survives, however, the Mexican government has
threatened to bring barrier-to-trade charges against the United States before
the World Trade Organization.
Stanley Minasian, president of the Animal Fund in San Francisco, a
plaintiff, said the new federal rule would remove dolphin protections.
"If the Latin Americans and the Bush administration have their way,
thousands of dolphins will die every year," Minasian said. "They get caught up
in the nets, and they drown. The mothers and babies get separated, and the
The environmentalists' suit names the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, whose new rule said the encircling fishing practice would no
longer disqualify tuna from a "dolphin safe" label as long as independent on-
vessel observers certified that no dolphins had been killed or injured during
William Hogarth, head of the oceanic administration, said there wasn't
enough evidence to show that the encircling nets had a significant role in the
continued decline of some dolphin species.
In response to the suit, Connie Barclay, a spokeswoman for the oceanic
administration, said, "We will review their brief and submit our own comments
to the judge."
The case goes before Judge Thelton Henderson, who over the last decade has
generally ruled in favor of dolphin protections. He ruled in 1999 that the
government couldn't weaken the criteria for the label in the absence of study
showing that the fishing practice wasn't harming dolphins.
Armed with recent footage taken off the Galapagos Islands showing 50 or
more dolphins dead or dying in a purse-seine net, the environmental groups say
they don't trust the observers, many of whom are pressured by the fishermen.
The groups also argue that the observers can't measure stress or separation of
mothers and babies.
They cite a 100-page study prepared by the Southwest Fisheries Science
Center in La Jolla (San Diego County), part of the Commerce Department,
stating concerns that the "practice of chasing and encircling dolphins somehow
is adversely affecting the ability of these depleted stocks to recover."
Three weeks before Hogarth issued the new rule, Secretary of State Colin
Powell sent a letter asking him to carefully review the evidence before making
The Department of State has an interest in this matter, Powell wrote,
because the finding would profoundly affect its role as leader in an
international agreement among 14 nations and the European Union that has been
very successful in reducing dolphin deaths.
State Department officials didn't return requests for a comment on Powell's
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle