Annual Limit Fast Approaching : Heavy Dolphin Kill Could Shut Down Tuna Industry

Times Staff Writer

They disagree on the date, but tuna industry, government and environmental spokesmen agree that a fast-approaching limit on dolphin kills may stop almost all tuna fishing in the Eastern Pacific this summer.

"According to our projections, the industry will meet its quota by June 17," said Dean Wilkinson, director of wildlife legislation for Greenpeace, an environmental organization that favors strict enforcement of the dolphin limit. "During the last month, U.S. boats have been killing dolphin at a rate of over 200 per day--three times as many as in the previous month."

The National Marine Fisheries Service, on the other hand, puts the date at which the limit will be reached somewhere in mid- to late July.

About 90% of all tuna fishing is done by setting nets on the dolphins, under which large schools of tuna habitually gather.

Fisheries Service figures show that as of June 1, the U.S. fleet had killed 16,061 dolphins, already nearing the annual limit of 20,500 set by Congress under the 1984 Marine Mammal Protection Act.

When the annual limit is reached, the fleet will be ordered to discontinue all fishing on dolphin schools in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, where the entire San Diego-based fleet fishes.

The ban would force the U.S. fleet--which is already reeling under the pressure of foreign competition, low prices and the decline of the U.S. canning industry--to make significantly longer trips to find tuna and probably bring lower tuna yields, said Charles Fullerton, regional director of the Fisheries Service in San Pedro.

"This will effectively mean that we are banned from fishing in these areas," said American Tunaboat Assn. President August Felando in San Diego. "If you can't fish on porpoise, it's like you're fishing with one hand tied behind your back."

Because of summer hurricanes, fishing near shore for school tuna becomes impractical. "What it will mean is that U.S. boats will be perceived as unreliable, and canners are going to look to foreign boats for their needs," Felando said.

Greenpeace has sent a letter to the Fisheries Service demanding that it take action to cut off fishing before the limit is reached. "We're afraid that at this rate they may go way over the ceiling before any action is taken," Wilkinson said.

The Fisheries Service, however, says limit will probably be reached in mid- to late July. Because of a large jump in the kill rate during the month of May, Greenpeace's straight-line method of projection is inaccurate, Fullerton said. Fullerton, who receives radio reports from Fisheries Service observers on the tuna boats every other day, said that the kill has subsequently leveled out.

"When we get to the point that we're pretty damn sure they're going to hit the limit, then we'll publish a legal notice in the Federal Register," he said. Once this is done, the tuna fleet will be forced to end all fishing on dolphins within a week.

Whether the shutdown comes next week or next month, it is certain to create substantial enforcement difficulties for the Fisheries Service. When the agency instituted a ban in 1976 with only 60 days remaining in the year and attempted to enforce it using seaplanes, the strategy was "less than successful," Fullerton said.

"We're trying to draw up the procedures right now. The Eastern Pacific is a mighty big territory to cover," Fullerton said.

Ironically, both Greenpeace and the Tunaboat Assn. have contested the accuracy of the Fisheries Service's figures, claiming respectively that they underestimate and overestimate the actual kills.

As examples of the good faith effort the fleet has made, Felando cited the industry's past record of killing less than 1% of the dolphins captured, and the Golden Porpoise Award presented by his association to the skipper with the lowest kill rate. "I honestly don't think those guys can do any better, and if there's been a change it's a statistical change and not a real one."

In 1985, the first year in which the strict numerical limit was imposed, the tuna fleet was more than 1,000 dolphins short, killing 19,205 for the year. Fullerton attributes the increased kill rate to swollen schools of tuna.

"Because El Nino came a couple years ago there's just a lot of fish out there this year. They (the fishermen) are just way ahead of themselves," he said.

Greenpeace, on the other hand, blames the kills on tuna captains' "laziness" and weakened oversight. "What were until now 'regulations' governing the fishing on dolphins became 'guidelines' this year--completely unenforceable," Wilkinson said.

Due to the financial squeeze on the tuna boats, they have chosen to fish on dolphins exclusively rather than seeking the smaller "school tuna," Wilkinson said. The yellowfin tuna that congregate beneath the dolphins--scientists are not sure why--tend to be larger and more numerous than other types.

The restrictions on dolphin kills have been a point of conflict between tuna fishermen and environmental groups since the Marine Mammal Protection Act became law in 1972. Until that time, the fleet killed as many as 134,000 dolphins each year, seriously endangering some species of the fish such as the Eastern Spinner.

Since then, the dolphin population has stabilized and even begun to increase, according to Fullerton. The Fisheries Agency will know more when an ongoing survey of the entire Eastern Pacific is completed in two or three years.

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