Dolphin Demise : Foreign Tuna Fishing Fleets Blamed for Most of the Sharp Increase in Killings

Times Staff Writer

Responding to public outrage over the killing of sea mammals, including dolphins drowned in tuna nets, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. The law proclaimed an “immediate goal” of reducing dolphin deaths and injuries “to insignificant levels approaching . . . zero.”

But, 17 years later, dolphins continue to perish by the tens of thousands. And that situation is not likely to change any time soon, tuna industry and government officials acknowledge.

The situation is not as bleak as in the early ‘70s, when 200,000 to 400,000 of the mammals died annually. Yet after dropping sharply for several years, dolphin deaths may be rising. Nearly 100,000 of these graceful and highly evolved creatures are being killed on average each year, according to government estimates that critics contend are artificially low. Conservation groups such as Greenpeace say the killing of dolphins is still “the largest slaughter of marine mammals in the world.”

Government officials say the kill remains so high because fishermen continue to catch tuna by herding dolphins that skim the surface above the tuna, netting both the fish and the mammals. Moreover, the American fleet, which is required to use specific gear and techniques to save the mammals, is steadily giving way to less regulated or unregulated foreign boats. Today, most of the tuna fishing--and dolphin killing--is done by foreign fleets that the United States can influence only indirectly, through import sanctions.


Not that U.S. fishermen don’t kill dolphins. The U.S. fleet has a yearly mortality quota of 20,500 dolphins and has exceeded it twice in recent years. Yet U.S. fishermen already save such a high percentage of the mammals that become entangled in their nets that “future improvement can only be de minimis, not dramatic,” according to David Burney, general counsel of the U.S. Tuna Foundation, an industry group.

Meanwhile, the less experienced foreign fleets may be killing dolphins at a rate four times higher, government and industry officials say. Whether the dolphin population is stable or declining under the onslaught is the subject of a multiyear federal study.

Fisheries Service

The situation has focused attention on the National Marine Fisheries Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce that is supposed to support commercial fishing and regulate it. Among other things, the fisheries service places observers aboard U.S. tuna boats to count dolphin deaths and monitor rescue efforts.


The agency last year came under strong congressional criticism for delaying sanctions against foreign fleets that fail to reduce their dolphin kill. And in a lawsuit pending in federal court in San Francisco, conservation groups have accused the agency of failing in its legal duty to protect the mammals. Earlier this year, at the request of the conservation groups, a federal judge ordered the fisheries service to place observers on all U.S. tuna boats, instead of on only a certain percentage.

And last year, a report by the Commerce Department’s inspector general described the fisheries service’s enforcement policy as “lenient. . . .We were told by NMFS staff with longstanding and intimate knowledge of tuna fishing operations that fines have been so low compared to incomes that skippers have knowingly violated the regulations and accepted the fines,” the inspector general said. Fisheries service officials responded that problems identified in the report were “real but transient.”

Program Investigated

The General Accounting Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, recently launched an investigation of the fisheries observer program.

The GAO is looking into how often crews interfere with the observers, and whether such interference results in undercounting deaths. The probe was requested last fall by members of the Senate Commerce Committee, including Chairman Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and former member Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), in response to affidavits in which three former observers contended that they were harassed. “Certain captains harassed me constantly with verbal abuse and threats,” one of the observers said.

A second described a trip in which fishermen “engaged in every possible form of harassment and coercion to ensure that I did not report the actual number of dolphins killed.” He said that to make him retreat from his observation post, the crew threw “seal bombs” at him. Seal bombs are small explosives, similar to cherry bombs, used in herding dolphins.

On seeing the kill figures the observer had recorded, the captain “went totally berserk, saying that if the numbers were reported the way I had written them, I would thereafter have to sleep in the net pile. I know that if I ‘fell off’ I would never be found,” the observer said.

Observers ‘Harassed’


In another episode several years ago, a fishermen fired a gun over the head of an observer, purportedly as a prank.

After weeks at sea, “everyone gets a little short,” which may result in “some problems” between federal observers and crews, said August Felando, president of the American Tunaboat Assn. He said a tuna boat is the only “workplace in the United States today that has a government agent living with you 24 hours a day.”

Fisheries service officials said they believe harassment is rare, does not lead to undercounting of dolphin deaths and is prosecuted when reported.

According to agency data, fines were sought in eight cases of harassment or interference in 1987 and 1988. But during the previous 10 years, records show that fines were sought in only two cases, according to Martin Hochman, regional counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the arm of the Commerce Department that includes the fisheries service.

Hochman said he did not know why so few cases were pursued earlier. He said it is unlikely observers were treated better in previous years than they are now. There might “have been a different perception of what amounted to interference,” he said.

Yellowfin Quarry

Less than 10% of the world’s tuna catch involves the killing of dolphins; less than 100 boats do all of the killing. They fish the vast expanse of ocean known as the Eastern Tropical Pacific, extending from Southern California to Chile and hundreds of miles out to sea. Their quarry is yellowfin, which goes into the “chunk light” type of canned tuna most popular with American consumers. Albacore, another big seller, does not swim with dolphins.

Even in the eastern Pacific, yellowfin are taken in ways that do no harm to the mammals. There is “log” fishing--catching tuna that congregate under floating debris--and “school” fishing in which yellowfin are netted in large schools.


But the industry has increasingly relied on a technique in which dolphins serve as beacons for yellowfin schools. For unknown reasons, in the eastern Pacific the larger, more mature yellowfin that fetch a higher price at the cannery swim beneath herds of dolphins, which are easily spotted skimming the surface.

In a sort of high-tech, salt-water rodeo, helicopters, speedboats and small explosives are used to herd the mammals, which are then encircled by purse seines nearly a mile in circumference. Under federal regulations, U.S. boats must use a safety panel, a strip of fine mesh at the top of the net to keep dolphins from being snagged by the snout or fins.

Equipment Failures

They must also carefully drop the cork lines that hold up the net so the mammals can swim out. More than half the time, the tuna are caught without a single dolphin death. But other times, gear failures or ocean currents cause the net to collapse, forcing the air-breathing dolphins below the surface. Fishermen are required to enter the water in rubber rafts or wet suits in an effort to save them--but many dolphins still die.

“If this occurred on land where people could see what was happening, it would be against the law,” said Todd Steiner, an official with the Earth Island Institute, an environmental group that last year called for a boycott of canned tuna and joined the suit against the fisheries service.

Industry officials point out that killing dolphins is the last thing fishermen want. Picking dead dolphins from nets saps valuable time and money. As evidence of the industry’s concern, Felando says the San Diego-based tuna boat association annually bestows a “Golden Porpoise Award” on the skipper with the best record of averting the deaths.

(“Porpoise” and “dolphin” often are used interchangeably, although virtually all the tuna-fishing deaths involve dolphins rather than porpoises, which are close relatives.)

Industry Record

According to spokesmen for the industry, U.S. fishermen have become so proficient that more than 99% of encircled dolphins get released alive.

It’s “magical what they’re doing out there,” Felando said. Yet it “seems that we’re continually being asked to justify our existence.”

Still, critics say U.S. boats have been killing an average of 18,000 dolphins a year, even though the size of the fleet has dropped dramatically--from more than 90 boats in 1981 to about 35. The reason is they have been catching more yellowfin and relying more on herding dolphins to do it.

Industry officials reject calls for a ban on encircling the mammals, saying this would destroy what is left of the American fleet and leave the entire fishery to foreigners.

But critics cite what happened in 1986, when the kill quota of 20,500 was exceeded in October, leading to a ban on fishing for tuna by herding dolphins for the remainder of 1986. A number of boats remained at sea, fishing successfully by other methods for the rest of the year.

They simply “lucked out,” said Robert Salomons, senior scientist with the industry-sponsored Porpoise Rescue Foundation. “It was fortuitous that some school fish and log fish showed up,” said Salomons, but it was “nothing you could count on.”

Label Proposed

Some conservationists have called for a mandatory label that would identify canned tuna containing yellowfin caught by encircling dolphins.

Some industry and government officials contend that a label would be unworkable. “Maybe it would be a nice . . . PR thing, but how would you enforce (it)?” asked Charles Fullerton, regional director of the fisheries service.

For now, the fisheries service faces the daunting task of influencing foreign fleets over which it lacks direct control. Congress in 1984 directed the agency to close the U.S. tuna market to nations failing to require dolphin protection measures comparable to those in the United States. But the rules were not published until last year and give other nations until 1991 to achieve a dolphin kill rate no more than 25% above that of the United States.

Attacked for dragging their feet, agency officials said they were caught in a Catch-22 situation. If they moved too swiftly against other nations and barred yellowfin imports, the foreign fleets would find new markets and have no incentive to worry about the mammals.

“It was very important that we were strict enough to reduce the kill, but to keep them in . . . our program,” Fullerton said. Kicking them out “doesn’t stop killing the porpoise, and that’s what we want to do.”