NOAA 2000-050
Contact: Stephanie Dorezas


The United States announced today that it is appealing a lower court ruling that prevents the government from authorizing the use of a new definition for "dolphin-safe" tuna sold in the United States. The appeal was announced by Commerce Department Secretary William Daley with the strong endorsement of the State Department. Daley has asked the Justice Department to take all steps necessary to expedite the appeal, which will be decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.

The new dolphin-safe definition, approved by the Department of Commerce in regulations issued on Jan. 3, 2000, is an integral part of an important new multi-lateral agreement, known as the International Dolphin Conservation Program. The agreement among the United States, Mexico, and a number of other foreign nations became effective in March 1999. The IDCP is designed to continue the international efforts that have succeeded in lowering dolphin mortality from certain tuna fishery operations in the eastern Pacific Ocean by 99 percent over the past decade.

"For the international program to be effective in protecting dolphins, the foreign nations which have been responsible for reducing the harm to dolphins must have the incentive of selling their tuna to U.S. markets, which has been denied throughout the 1990s as a result of legislatively mandated embargoes," said Daley. "If they can't sell their tuna here, they'll sell it to countries that do not require the same dolphin protection standards."

"We cannot unilaterally protect dolphins from fishing practices on the high seas," Daley added. "International problems demand international solutions. And we believe that we have successfully negotiated an effective international agreement with other tuna fishing nations that will reduce dolphin mortality."

In 1997, the United States Congress enacted a law allowing the Department of Commerce to lift the long-standing embargoes against imports of yellowfin tuna from Mexico and several other countries if they are participating in the International Dolphin Conservation Program and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission. The law also enables tuna from the eastern tropical pacific ocean to qualify as "dolphin-safe" -- so long as no dolphins were killed or seriously injured when using the purse seine method of catching tuna. The prior "dolphin-safe" labeling standard, which has gone back into effect as a result of the lower court ruling, restricts the use of the dolphin-safe label. Tuna caught by vessels larger than 400 tons carrying capacity in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean using purse seines to encircle dolphins are not now eligible for the dolphin-safe label.

The court order from which the United States is appealing today had set aside a Commerce Department initial finding published in May 1999. Commerce official Penelope Dalton, the head of the National Marine Fisheries Service, had found insufficient scientific evidence that continued purse seine fishing was having a significant adverse impact on three groups of dolphins whose numbers had declined since the early 1960s, when purse seine fishing became widespread in the eastern Pacific Ocean. On April 11, 2000, the federal district court in San Francisco found, in response to complaints filed by several environmental groups, that Commerce had not made sufficient progress in conducting certain scientific research that Congress spelled out in the 1997 law. Several other major environmental groups, including Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, the Center for Marine Conservation, and the Environmental Defense Fund, all supported the government's position. The lower court order was made final on May 2, which triggered the government's decision to appeal.