‘Dolphin-Safe’ Claims Remain Cause for Debate


The “dolphin-safe” fishing agreement that the nation’s three largest tuna canners endorsed April 12 delighted environmentalists who have, for years, campaigned against fishing techniques that killed dolphins. Overnight, it seemed, the nation’s canners had defused a potentially explosive public-relations fiasco.

But, early this month, Earth Island Institute, a San Francisco-based environmental group, rekindled the dolphin-safe debate in full-page newspaper advertisements that urged consumers to boycott Bumble Bee Seafoods for allegedly canning fish caught by methods that kill and maim dolphins.

Executives at San Diego-based Bumble Bee promptly fought back with advertisements that defended their products as dolphin-safe as defined by widely accepted international guidelines. Mark Koob, Bumble Bee’s president, said it is too early to determine if the proposed boycott has hurt sales. But Bumble Bee has urged consumers to boycott Earth Island by switching their financial support to “responsible environmental groups.”

So far, the dispute has been limited to Earth Island and Bumble Bee, and most other environmental groups have stayed out of the fray. But observers say the allegations underscore how difficult it will be for the tuna-canning industry and the multifaceted environmental community to erect and maintain a dolphin-safe verification system.


Earlier this year, Bumble Bee, H.J. Heinz Co.'s Long Beach-based StarKist Seafoods division and San Diego-based Van Camp Seafood Co., which packages Chicken of the Sea, began shipping tuna in cans bearing “dolphin-safe” logos.

But the federal government’s dolphin-safe regulations won’t be ready until next year, and environmentalists haven’t yet defined what role they hope to play in the dolphin-safe labeling system. So canners have relied largely upon internally enforced mechanisms to ensure that only dolphin-safe tuna ends up on supermarket shelves.

Koob said the lack of federal regulations has allowed some individual environmental organizations to “try to usurp” the federal government’s role by demanding their their own, more-restrictive rules be accepted.

Earth Island has alleged that Bumble Bee and Unicord, Bumble Bee’s Thai-based owner, have continued to accept tuna that are being caught by nets that kill dolphins. And the environmental group alleges that the companies are failing to document that their tuna-canning plants aren’t accepting tuna caught by other methods known to harm dolphins.

Koob, in recent weeks, has repeatedly said that his company’s verification records are open to “any responsible environmental groups.” Unicord also has agreed to pay for an observer selected by the environmental community who would monitor Unicord’s processing plants in Thailand.

If the dispute between Earth Island and Bumble Bee escalates--or spreads to other environmental groups and canners--consumers “just won’t know who to believe,” said Norman Dean, executive director of Washington-based Green Seal, a nonprofit organization that is developing an “environmental seal of approval” for deserving products.

Green Seal has no plans to enter the dolphin-safe debate, but Dean said any “green” labeling that hopes to gain consumer trust would be undermined if the industry, environmentalists and regulators fail to agree upon uniform standards.

Unless agreement is reached, the fledgling dolphin-safe labeling program “probably won’t achieve its goals, and nobody will win,” Dean said. “This sounds like a case where people can get readily confused unless the issues are clearly defined.”


Surprisingly, relatively little disagreement remains between canners and environmentalists who, for decades have fought bitterly over the need for dolphin-safe fishing techniques.

In April, canners agreed to accept fish caught in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, a triangular section of the Pacific Ocean bounded by San Diego, Chile and Hawaii, only from fishing vessels that carry third-party observers who will verify that tuna wasn’t caught with giant seines that maim or kill dolphins.

Those nets are believed to be especially damaging to dolphin populations in the Eastern Tropical Pacific because there, unlike anywhere else in the world, dolphin are often found swimming directly over schools of tuna.

Outside of the Eastern Tropical Pacific, canners agreed that fishing fleets should not use lengthy gill-and-drift nets to capture tuna because those so-called “entanglement nets” often kill or maim dolphin, which are unable to escape from schools of tuna. Canners argue that they have instituted internal checkpoints that ensure that they accept delivery only of tuna caught through dolphin-safe fishing techniques.


Koob maintained in interviews last week that Bumble Bee’s dolphin-safe guidelines are modeled after U.N. tuna-fishing guidelines. He said the corporate rules were refined recently to accommodate concerns voiced by the Dolphin Coalition, a Washington-based alliance that includes nearly 40 environmental groups. And Koob believes Bumble Bee’s rules will be in keeping with federal regulations scheduled to come out next year.

Environmentalists blame the tense situation on the fact that both canners and environmentalists are in “an awkward situation” because federal tuna-fishing regulations won’t be in place until mid-1991. And, most environmental groups have yet to say how they will monitor the dolphin-safe claims made by packers.

The Dolphin Coalition will meet Wednesday in Washington to determine what role it might play in the continuing effort to ensure that canners stick to their dolphin-safe pledges.

Christopher Croft, director of the Dolphin Coalition, declined to comment on what will be discussed at the upcoming meeting. However, an advance agenda suggests that participants will try to determine criteria that must be met by canners in order to display dolphin-safe logos. The agenda also suggests that the Dolphin Coalition will consider the creation of its own dolphin-safe logo.


Croft also declined to comment on the growing controversy generated by Earth Island, which is demanding that consumers boycott Bumble Bee and instead purchase Chicken of the Sea and StarKist brand tuna.

However, in a Nov. 29 letter to Earth Island, Croft asked the San Francisco organization to refrain from “implicitly or directly suggesting that the Dolphin Coalition . . . is supporting the Bumble Bee protest.” Croft’s letter also suggested that “it is important that the (environmental) community evaluate the situation thoroughly . . . before forming a policy.”

And, in a recent letter to Unicord, Croft stated that the Dolphin Coalition has yet to reject or endorse any canners’ claim to be processing dolphin-free tuna.

Some environmentalists are worried that Earth Island’s attack on Bumble Bee could prompt consumers to dismiss dolphin-safe labeling as an example of greedy corporations bending the truth to bolster their market share.


Although most environmental groups have reserved judgment on dolphin-safe claims made by Bumble Bee, StarKist and Chicken of the Sea, environmentalists “don’t want a cynical public to look upon dolphin-safe (labels) and not believe them,” the environmentalist said.

Green Seal, which was created by an environmentalist who helped to organize the first Earth Day in 1970s, believes that any certification program designed to gain consumer trust “will succeed or fail in the details,” Dean said. “You want a system that’s stable enough that people can trust it.”