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The Final Curtain For Earth Island’s Dolphin Safe Certification?


The more-stringent dolphin safe legislation brought into action by the U.S. government applies to all tuna that wishes to be sold as dolphin safe within the United States. Its enforcement as law questions the future role of private initiatives such as the EII dolphin safe certification program that has already existed for over 20 years within the tuna industry. Both the U.S. government and EII now have identical standards. contacted EII (Earth Island Institute) executives in San Diego, USA, headquarters to interview them on the future role for their dolphin safe self-certification scheme in the canned tuna sector. Approaching them several times by telephone and email, unfortunately nobody was available or willing to explain what the future function of the organization’s dolphin safe program would be. Also no response came from the European branch of the organization. Branding billions of cans of tuna globally with its dolphin safe logo, EII has over 420 fishing, processing and trading companies registered to its scheme. Its logo claims to guarantee that the product that bears it is “truly dolphin safe.”

With a reported staff of 12 people in seven different countries, EII dolphin safe promotes itself as monitoring close to 2000 vessels across 55 different nations, catching over a billion kg’s of whole round tuna each year.

Over the years in many reports, and within the tuna industry, doubts have been expressed over the robustness and reliability of the EII dolphin safe program, which relies on tuna captains writing and signing a statement themselves that they did not injure or kill any dolphins, intentionally of accidentally. Considering that the admittance of any dolphin injury or deaths would make their catch commercially valueless, the reliability of such self-certification statements, with the lack of any third party verification on board, has often been questioned.

The new legislation will allow the U.S. government to impose penalties on any captain or company identified as not to be following the dolphin safe practices, and would even give it the power to order market re-calls of any tuna which was later found to be falsely labeled as dolphin safe, because the conditions and procedures were not correctly followed on board.

Both the EII and new U.S. regulations rule the non-encirclement of dolphins, the reporting of mortality or injury to dolphins and the separation of any tuna catch associated with the injury of a dolphin. No IUU vessels can sell tuna as dolphin safe. There will be a six month education period for tuna companies to associate themselves with the ruled practices, despite the fact that most purse seiners have said to be following these same rules as part of the EII program for many years already.

One major difference, however, is that the U.S. government has left the possibility open that these controls should be monitored and verified by independent observers on board vessels, while EII for the past 20 years has worked as a self-certification program, where captains themselves clarify that they have not chased, killed or hurt any dolphins.

A recent public notice from the PNG National Fisheries Authority (NFA) announced that it believes “many self-certification schemes in the market today are increasingly being shown as not being a reliable basis for a trustworthy eco-label.” The NFA managing director, Sylvester Pokajam, also explained that companies are refusing to cooperate on sustainable MSC fishing because they have been threatened by the self-certification schemes, indirectly pointing at EII.

When proposals for the new American law were announced, three major U.S. tuna fleet organizations, connected to Tri-Marine, StarKist and Bumble Bee, wrote to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in objection to the plans. The American Tunaboat Association said: “The ATA does not deny that, on rare occasions a dolphin may be harmed during fishing operations in the western Pacific.” The ATA also outlined that to separate tuna on board that was associated with the harming of a dolphin would impose an economic burden on fishing operation.

With over 1,500 fishing vessels embarking averagely on 6 trips per year, the EII is claiming to monitor over at least 9,000 fishing trips with 12 of its staff, as complying with its measures. No yearly EII reports have ever shown any mention of any dolphins being injured or killed by tuna captains which self-reported as part of the program.

The U.S. sources canned tuna from over 20 different countries. The new law applies to all canned tuna wishing to be sold in the U.S. as dolphin safe, from all gear types, while the EII focused only on purse seiners and pole and line vessels for the canning industry, disregarding other gear types.

Often tuna is caught prior to the knowledge of its final destination, meaning the majority of players within the industry will have to abide by the new U.S. law in order to guarantee that their tuna has no commercial limitations in the market in terms of distribution.

If most of the tuna industry has no option but to work under the strengthened U.S. legislation, will the 90 percent of tuna companies EII claims to certify see a benefit in their continued registration to its dolphin safe scheme? Meanwhile, will the U.S. government, having more possibilities of enforcement or legal power, be able to provide consumers with better assurances that the tuna they buy is “truly dolphin safe”?