Regulators Hold Off on 'Dolphin-Safe' Tuna Labeling Change

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration Thursday handed a temporary victory to conservationists by suspending its decision to loosen labeling standards for cans of "dolphin-safe" tuna. Conservation groups have sued to halt tuna imported from Mexico that was caught by encircling dolphins with gigantic nets.

The National Marine Fisheries Service agreed to postpone the relaxed requirements for dolphin-safe tuna for 90 days so that a federal judge in San Francisco can consider the lawsuit brought by the Earth Island Institute, the Humane Society of the United States and other environmental and animal welfare groups.

Bill Hogarth, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the agency expects to win on the merits of the case but agreed to postpone action to avoid the chance of a federal judge issuing a temporary restraining order.

"We stand by our original decision to change the label and remain convinced that this is the best means for the international conservation of dolphin populations," Hogarth said.

The National Marine Fisheries Service announced Dec. 31 that it was relaxing dolphin-safe rules, concluding that the killing of 1,600 dolphins a year by foreign fishing fleets -- a drop from the annual slaughter of 350,000 decades ago -- no longer poses a significant threat to dolphin populations.

The decision was made to satisfy tuna fishing fleets from Mexico and Colombia, which unlike their U.S. competitors continue to chase dolphins and encircle them with nets because yellowfin tuna follow dolphins in the Eastern Pacific.

These foreign fleets said they need the dolphin-safe label to compete in the U.S. market and vow to not use the label on any tuna catches that result in known dolphin deaths.

But the decision, made in the interest of free trade, has come under increasing criticism from environmentalists, scientists and members of Congress.

"It's very cynical thing they are doing, and it's wrong," said U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who introduced legislation Thursday to overturn the decision. "It's insane to tell people they are buying dolphin-safe tuna when they are not."

Dave Phillips of the Earth Island Institute said the federal government's decision is not supported by the government's own scientists.

He predicted a quick victory that will force the government to return permanently to stricter standards to protect dolphins.

As for the 90-day reprieve, he said, "We feel good about any day we can stop Mexican trucks from carrying dolphin-deadly tuna over the border."

Consumers have grown accustomed to the dolphin-safe label used since 1990 by the major U.S. tuna sellers, Star-Kist Foods Inc., Bumble Bee Tuna Seafoods Inc. and Chicken of the Sea International.

David Burney, executive director of the U.S. Tuna Foundation, said these companies and the U.S. tuna fleet have no intention of straying from their own standards, which is to catch tuna without netting dolphins.

"It is our belief," he said, "that the U.S. consumers and retailers do not want to buy tuna that has been caught by encircling dolphins."

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