You might call it The Day of the Dolphin II.
The World Trade Organization has delivered a decisive and critical victory to protect dolphins from U.S. and foreign fleets seeking to sell tuna in the U.S. market, in one of the longest-running global fights for animal welfare. This is the latest, and perhaps most definitive outcome in a series of battles between The HSUS and the Mexican government — and between varying factions in the U.S. Congress — that has stretched on for more than 30 years.
Today’s ruling means that all tuna sold in the United States under the dolphin-safe label will come from fishing fleets that do not chase down and set nets on dolphins as a way of catching the schools of tuna that swim beneath the dolphins. It is a great victory for our cause, and a vindication of our long-running congressional, judicial, and international trade actions to protect dolphins from fleets that intentionally harass or injure and kill dolphins as a means of catching the swift and commercially valuable tuna.
When I was a kid in the 1970s, the first animal protection issue that I connected with was that of commercial fishing fleets harassing dolphins, setting nets on them, and drowning them by the thousands. The tuna swam below the dolphins, and the fishing fleets used the dolphins, who need to surface to breathe, as markers to catch the tuna. The dolphins were collateral damage for these immense fishing fleets, with their chase boats and giant purse seine nets doing the damage.
Led by then U.S. Rep. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Congress in the late 1980s imposed an embargo on tuna caught by that inhumane fishing method and required that all canned tuna sold in the U.S. market be labeled to stipulate that the tuna was dolphin-safe, involving no chasing and netting of the cetaceans. Little did I know that three decades later, I’d still be working on this issue with attorneys and scientists on our staff. I am proud of my colleagues for staying the course, fighting long and hard and often against tough odds, in order to prevent the hurting and drowning of extraordinary numbers of dolphins – with some estimates running in excess of seven million killed in the last few decades.
The situation became more tangled when a band of lawmakers, led by U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and by former Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., worked to weaken the label and lift the U.S. embargo on tuna that was caught by chasing and netting dolphins, relying on the dubious argument that other fishing methods used had their own unintended consequences. These lawmakers and the government of Mexico wanted to bastardize the definition of the dolphin-safe label and allow that label to be used even if fishing fleets chased dolphins for miles and encircled them, as long as the observers didn’t see seriously injured or drowned animals in the miles wide and deep nets. These on-board observers could hardly gauge the immediate and post-catch effects on the dolphins, and this effort to change the law made a mockery of the meaning of the label and amounted to consumer deception. McCain and Gilchrest prevailed. But only in part.
Before that legislation was made final, then Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Joe Biden, D-Del., worked to create standards that stipulated that if tuna sold in the United States was to be labeled dolphin-safe, the government had to prove that the fishing methods were not harming dolphin populations. It was a savvy and foresighted stroke on their part, and it proved in the end to save the day for dolphins.
It was that language that was in dispute when the issue found its way into our federal courts. U.S. District Courts and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals consistently ruled that chasing and harassing dolphins does harm dolphins, both as individuals and as populations – barring fishing interests from getting access to the U.S. market and trading on the dolphin-safe label. That was the just outcome, since it would be a mischaracterization to suggest there’s no harm to dolphins when mothers are separated from their babies, injuries are inflicted on dolphins caught up in the nets, pregnant mothers abort their young because of stress, and energy expenditures from long chases compromise their health and wellness.
When those federal court rulings went our way and stymied the plans of Mexico and the fishing fleets it was advocating on behalf of, they took the United States to court before the WTO. That battle went on for years, but a second key maneuver (after the Boxer-Biden amendments) was the effort by the Obama administration and then Vice President Biden to apply U.S. tuna fishing import rules to all oceans, not just fishing in the Pacific. That proved a critical tactical move, and the WTO ruled today that U.S. “dolphin-safe” labeling requirements do comply with international rules and do not discriminate against Mexico.
Tuna can be sold in the United States today if fishing fleets set nets on dolphins. But it won’t get the label. And Americans generally want nothing to do with that kind of tuna, because we’re a dolphin-loving society.
We’ve learned to say that today’s ruling is not the final word. But we may be close. Either way, this ruling is a big moment in a decades-long campaign to protect dolphins. We would like to thank the U.S. Office of the Trade Representative and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service for their unfailing support of the dolphin-safe tuna label at the WTO. We’re doing backflips over here at The HSUS, and we hope the dolphins are celebrating right along with us.