NOAA 99-35
Contact: Scott Smullen


The Commerce Department announced today that the United States will adopt a new dolphin-safe label standard for tuna caught by the encirclement of dolphins in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean. The new standard is required by law unless the Department's National Marine Fisheries Service can show that catching tuna by encircling dolphins has a significant adverse impact on three depleted dolphin stocks. In its initial finding, the Fisheries Service concludes that there is insufficient evidence to make the "significant adverse impact" call.

The new dolphin-safe standards under the International Dolphin Conservation Program Act will allow the use of the "dolphin-safe" label if the tuna are caught in the presence of dolphins, provided that no dolphins are killed or seriously injured. Previously, only tuna caught when no dolphins were present qualified for the dolphin-safe tuna label on products imported into the United States. A number of environmental organizations, including the Center for Marine Conservation and the World Wildlife Fund, supported passage of the legislation.

In the 1950's, fishermen discovered that yellowfin tuna in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP) aggregated beneath schools of dolphin stocks. For years after that discovery, the predominate tuna fishing method in the ETP was to encircle schools of dolphins with a fishing net to entrap the tuna concentrated below. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of dolphins died in the early years of this fishing method before fishermen began to employ techniques to reduce dolphin mortality.

"Since consumers began to demand dolphin-safe tuna standards in the early 1990s, foreign tuna fishermen have dramatically reduced dolphin deaths and have agreed to these binding international standards," said Terry Garcia, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and deputy NOAA administrator. "The number of dolphin deaths has dropped dramatically from over 133,000 in 1986 to less than 2,000 dolphins in 1998. These strong conservation efforts brought about through international cooperation have led to today's announcement. We believe that continued low level of dolphin mortalities will allow depleted stocks to recover to healthy population abundance levels."

The significant reduction in dolphin mortality can be attributed primarily to continued international cooperation through the International Dolphin Conservation Program that is administered under the auspices of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission.

Countries, including the United States, that were voluntarily participating in the program have entered into a binding, international agreement limiting dolphin mortalities associated with tuna fishing to less than 5,000 dolphins per year, with additional limits to ensure that stock-specific dolphin mortality will be negligible. Many of these countries strongly supported the U.S. enactment of the International Dolphin Conservation Program Act. The Act is the United States' response to a successful international negotiation called the Panama Declaration, signed in 1995.

"This international program benefits the entire ecosystem by minimizing bycatch of immature tuna and other marine life, including endangered species, while reducing dolphin mortality," said Penny Dalton, director of the Commerce Department's Fisheries Service. "The program continues the industry's long-standing efforts to minimize the number of dolphin deaths in the fishery."

In 1997 the U.S. Congress passed the IDCPA, which required the Department's National Marine Fisheries Service to research the effects of repeated chase and encirclement of dolphins in the ETP and provide data for the Secretary's initial finding.

After reviewing the scientifically peer-reviewed and Congressionally mandated study, the agency concluded there is not enough data to confirm that encircling dolphins to catch tuna causes a significant adverse impact on three depleted dolphin stocks of the eight major dolphin stocks found in the ETP. Because the research study does not show with certainty that the depleted dolphin stocks are adversely affected, the IDCPA requires the Secretary to make this labeling change.

The study consists of dolphin stock abundance surveys and stress studies of dolphins encircled by purse seine nets. The study was scientifically reviewed by three separate, independent panels, including one requested by the Congress. Three of the eight major stocks of dolphins present in the ETP (Northeastern offshore spotted dolphin, Eastern spinner dolphin and coastal spotted dolphin) were of concern to scientists due to their depleted status. While two of the three stocks appear to be growing at lower rates than expected, fisheries service scientists were not able to identify a cause-and effect relationship based on available data.

Through 2001, the Fisheries Service will continue this comprehensive study of dolphin populations in the ETP. Scientists will continue to collect data on dolphin population abundance and biology and ascertain whether there are adverse impacts prior to completing the agency's final finding by the end of 2002.

The United States will allow imports of tuna harvested under the International Dolphin Conservation Program to carry a dolphin-safe tuna label only if no dolphin were killed or seriously injured during a set in which tuna were caught.

The Fisheries Service is an agency of the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Fisheries Service is dedicated to protecting and preserving our nation's living marine resources through scientific research, management, enforcement, and the conservation of marine mammals and other protected marine species and their habitat.

Additional materials regarding this decision are available on the Internet at: