The Senate reached a compromise Friday that would allow food processors to sell tuna in the United States even if dolphins were killed when the tuna were caught. But the companies would not be allowed to label the cans of tuna “dolphin-safe.”
The compromise is intended to end a growing confrontation between the United States and 11 other nations, including Mexico, who operate tuna fleets in the eastern Pacific, over how far Washington could go in determining what methods other nations could use in catching fish sold here.
It would end a U.S. embargo on tuna caught in nets up to a mile long and 50 feet deep that are deployed around dolphins and suffocate the air-breathing marine mammals as the tuna are hauled in. For reasons scientists have not determined, tuna in the eastern tropical Pacific swim beneath dolphin pods.
The compromise is at least a temporary solution to a controversy that has divided environmental groups and split the Senate.
Subsequent studies are to determine the ultimate impact on dolphins.
Critics of the dolphin-netting practice favored catching tuna by casting nets around free-swimming schools of younger tuna and around more mature tuna that congregate beneath logs and other floating obstructions in the ocean. But others argued that this resulted in a by-catch that unnecessarily killed sea turtles, sharks, marlin and sailfish.
Under the proposal, which the Senate is expected to approve next week, the Commerce Department would conduct a three-year study to determine the impact of the dolphin-netting practice on the dolphin population.
If the Commerce secretary decides that this encirclement method was not significantly depleting the already-limited stocks of dolphins, tuna caught this way could be labeled “dolphin-safe.”
In addition, each fishing boat would carry an independent observer to certify that no dolphins were killed when the tuna were caught. Any tuna whose capture resulted in dolphin deaths could not be sold as dolphin-safe.
Legislation passed by the House in May contains fewer restrictions on the use of the dolphin-safe label.
The compromise was criticized by the Humane Society of the United States, whose vice president, Wayne Pacelle, said it would not protect dolphins from “needless harassment, injury and death.”
He and others who have opposed the encirclement process say that high-speed tuna fishing boats chase the dolphins for hours, exhausting them and leaving them frightened and confused.
But David Sandretti, a spokesman for Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who sought the compromise, said, “The bottom line is the integrity of the dolphin-safe label is intact.”
The White House, under pressure from Mexico, had lobbied Congress for a course that would ease the precautions enough that Mexican fishing boats would not abandon the U.S. market and instead sell tuna - without protecting dolphins - in markets with fewer restrictions.
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