Tuna Boats' Toll of Dolphins Still Runs High in Waters Off Costa Rica : Conservation: Foreign vessels continue their tuna fishing practices despite boycott by three American companies. Still, the action seems to be having an effect.


The three largest tuna companies in the U.S. market scored a public relations victory recently when they announced that they would stop buying tuna caught by netting dolphins.

In the waters off Costa Rica, however, thousands of miles south of where Starkist, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea made their pronouncements, dolphins are still being killed, largely by foreign tuna fishermen oblivious to or uncaring of the conservationist concerns of the American public.

"Nothing will happen until inspectors go on the ships and start enforcing it," said Gerardo Huertas, the Costa Rican representative for the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

According to the Costa Rican Agriculture Ministry, 60,000 tons of tuna are caught in Costa Rica's territorial waters each year. Much of it is taken by boats flagged by Mexico, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela and Vanuatu.

Costa Rica itself has none of the large tuna boats most responsible for methods that kill dolphin, but the country collects about $2 million annually in fees from foreign tuna boats fishing in its waters and selling part of their catch to U.S. companies.

Huertas said that in the Western Hemisphere, only Mexican waters produce more tuna than Costa Rican waters, where most tuna is caught by netting dolphins.

For reasons not fully understood, dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific--the coastal waters from California to Chile--swim with schools of tuna.

Many large tuna boats search for dolphins, herd them together with cherry bombs dropped from helicopters, then send out speedboats to encircle the area in a huge net tied to the main boat that scoops up everything in its path.

Tens of thousands of dolphins die each year from getting caught in the nets and drowning.

Amid conservationist concerns and U.S. boycotts, Starkist, Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee announced April 12 that they would stop buying tuna caught with dolphins.

In response to the assertions by Huertas, Chicken of the Sea spokeswoman Mitch Meyers in St. Louis noted that the firm--affiliated with Indonesian-owned Van Camp Seafood--buys only from U.S.-flagged boats, which are virtually all accompanied by U.S. government observers.

"Our contract states we won't buy tuna caught on dolphin," she said.

Starkist spokesman Erik Bloemendaal in Long Beach said his company, an affiliate of H. J. Heinz in Pittsburgh, buys from foreign and U.S. vessels. He said its policy applies to boats that left port after April 12 and "our policy is not to buy any tuna caught in association with dolphin."

He said while there are "not enough" international observers on foreign boats, Starkist would buy only tuna "certified dolphin safe."

"That's not to say other canners couldn't," he said.

Bumble Bee, a Thai-owned company, has said it needs as long as six months to end its contractual obligations before starting the new policy.

Huertas did not name companies buying locally caught tuna and had no figures on how much tuna they purchase. But he said any boat could claim not to fish with dolphins.

"The companies can try not to buy tuna with dolphin blood on it, but that's a very difficult thing to do," he said, adding that the only enforcement inspectors have is to report dolphin killers to tuna companies.

"The decision not to buy dolphin tuna will reduce the amount of killing some, but it will depend on how many inspectors they have," Huertas said.

The boycott of dolphin-caught tuna was not well received by Costa Rica's tuna industry.

"It's upsetting the whole industry, including myself," said Stewart Heigold, who owns Tesoro del Mar, one of two Costa Rican tuna canneries that sell some of their product to U.S. distributors. "They (Bumble Bee, Starkist and Chicken of the Sea) are the three most important tuna companies in the world."

But Heigold said he would buy tuna from anyone because his main market is in Costa Rica, where the public is not concerned with conservation.

Still, he added Costa Rica is "going to have to make laws" against fishing with dolphins because, "If we don't, we are going to be sanctioned, and if I try to sell my tuna to the United States, I will be turned away."

Heigold said enforced regulations could prompt different fishing methods.

But Huertas said many boats would move to Mexican waters because "Mexico does not care about it. . . . They just do whatever they want."

Heigold said the U.S. boycott of dolphin tuna is also driving down the international market price for tuna sold by boats openly using the dolphin method.

During most of the 1970s, when accurate figures became available, most dolphins killed by tuna boats were killed by U.S.-flagged vessels. In 1972, more than 368,000 dolphins were killed by U.S. vessels, compared to 55,000 by non-U.S. vessels, according to U.S. government statistics.

But with conservationist pressure and regulations such as the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, American boats have been legally held to fewer than 20,500 dolphin deaths for several years.

However, many boats simply changed nationalities, and by 1986 the number of dolphins killed by non-U.S. vessels was more than 100,000.

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