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“US Tuna Industry Has A Double Standard On Dolphin-Safe”

American and Pacific island tuna industry officials are engaged in a battle over the so-called “dolphin-safe” designation for skipjack tuna — for opposite reasons.

Officials with the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), which represents the eight nations where most of the world’s skipjack is caught, say that the US tuna industry is threatening to blacklist any US or European companies that buy tuna from PNA sources that does not carry the dolphin-safe logo.
PNA is working to roll out its first Marine Stewardship Council-certified skipjack tuna. But PNA Commercial Manager Maurice Brownjohn said many companies are expressing fear of buying the product because it doesn’t come under the dolphin-safe label.

Meanwhile, US tuna industry officials are up in arms over a newly implemented US fisheries rule issued to address a complaint filed by Mexico with the World Trade Organization, which accused the US of using the dolphin-safe designation to prevent tuna imports from Mexico — that steps up reporting requirements for American tuna boats that they say could undermine their industry.

“It would seem obvious that the new regulations will negatively affect the US fleet in the western Pacific much more than they will impact the tuna purse seine fleets of other flags, thereby putting US flag vessels at a competitive disadvantage,” said Brian Hallman, Executive Director of the American Tunaboat Association, based in San Diego. But PNA’s Brownjohn accuses the US tuna industry of a double standard. He says on the one hand, Earth Island Institute, an industry associated entity, is threatening to blacklist companies that do business with PNA’s tuna that does not carry the dolphin-safe label, but at the same time the American industry doesn’t want to follow the dolphin-safe requirements that others are being told to adhere to.
Both Brownjohn and Hallman agree on one thing: dolphin interactions with skipjack tuna catches in the western Pacific are infrequent because fishermen are not using dolphin schools to catch skipjack. Otherwise, their positions are diametrically opposed.

The new rule, issued in early July by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, requires that if there is any type of dolphin injury or mortality associated with a purse seine tuna boat catch, it must be reported and the tuna caught segregated in a separate hold of the vessel. “That tuna could not be dumped (because of rules adopted by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission) and likely could not be sold, so there would be a real cost to the fishing operation,” says Hallman.

It would probably be a rare occurrence, Hallman said, because there are only “rare interactions involving individual dolphins that can occur during fishing operations in this region.” But Brownjohn says it is ludicrous for the American tuna industry to complain about having to enforce a US standard that is being applied to other fleets that want to market tuna in the US.

The contention over the dolphin-safe designation highlights a growing debate over certification systems used to manage tuna fishing. The dolphin-safe label has defined canned tuna sold by Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea, and StarKist to the US market for more than 20 years. But PNA says it is irrelevant to the PNA fishing zone in the Western Pacific because of the lack of dolphin interaction with skipjack and because it is a largely self-certification method that does not support sustainable fishing of tuna.

A recently issued paper by authors from the Australian National Center for Ocean Resources and Security at the University of Wollongong says that fish caught in the Western Pacific claiming dolphin-safe status has little independent verification and may require only a statement from the vessel’s captain to get the tuna certified as dolphin-safe.

In contrast, the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC’s) sustainability certificate for the PNA skipjack fishery “follows an established process” of verification that includes independent assessment of the scheme and requires adherence to an independently-verified “chain of custody” for the tuna to confirm that it was caught according to the “sustainability” requirements.

“The MSC PNA assessment sets an important precedent because the successful unit of certification -purse seine sets on free schools of skipjack tuna has the least impact upon other species, especially on juvenile bigeye and yellowfin tuna, by comparison with other purse seine set types,” the University of Wollongong paper notes. “Free school” means skipjack caught without the use of fish aggregation devices (FADs), which are used for most purse seine fishing in the Western Pacific.

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission has supported a PNA three-month ban on FADS for July through September, and added one additional month for the ban that fishing boats have the option of not fishing on FADs for October or spreading a month’s worth of FAD-less fishing over the other eight months of the year.

PNA spent the past three years working through all of the requirements for MSC certification for free- school caught skipjack and received its certification last year, and confirmation of the chain of custody system in April — all of which has positioned PNA’s tuna label, Pacifical, to market new MSC certified sustainable tuna in Europe and the US.

Brownjohn said tuna retailers in Europe like PNA’s new MSC certified product because there is the credibility brought by independent verification. But, he added, it is only now people are beginning to learn of the “blatant consumer fraud that the self-regulated” American tuna industry has committed in the name of dolphin-safe tuna. “Any criticism along these lines is grossly unfair and has no factual basis,” said Hallman. “US vessel operators in the Western Pacific and others involved in the tuna business have followed US law on how the tuna caught in that region is characterized in terms of being dolphin-safe. On the rare occasions when a dolphin may be harmed during fishing operations, that information is reported by US vessels to US authorities, as required by law.”

Brownjohn makes the point that even though the US tuna industry has officially acknowledged that occasionally dolphins have been harmed in fishing operations in the PNA area, there has never been any tuna declared “not dolphin safe” and not certified, which confirms the lack of integrity in a system that allows self-certification.

The key issue for PNA is to get its MSC certified tuna to market in Europe. The main hurdle facing it seems to be the lack of dolphin-safe label, even though the need for it in the Western Pacific’s skipjack fishery is a source of fierce debate.