Natural Foods Merchandiser

Dolphin Protection Policy Upheld in Tuna Case

Retailers can assure customers that their tuna is dolphin-safe, since standards for dolphin-safe labeling on tuna were upheld in U.S. District Court last week, years after international groups and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce asked Congress to weaken the regulations.

Major tuna processing companies like StarKist, Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee Tuna had already decided to comply with the more stringent rules anyway, said Randi Thomas, a national representative for the United States Tuna Foundation. "They are really pleased that the judge upheld the law," she said.

Citing a lack of significant research and evidence on the part of Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ruled to uphold the standards of protection established in the 1990 Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act. "This court has never, in its 24 years, reviewed a record of agency action that contained such a compelling portrait of political meddling," Henderson wrote.

The act prohibits tuna sold in the United States from being labeled "dolphin safe" if it was caught with purse seine nets, used to chase and encircle dolphins, which often gather above fleets of tuna in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean.

But Mexico and other Central and South American countries have been pressuring the U.S. government since 1995 to relax the rules so they could export their tuna to the United States.

Congress said it would permit the regulations to be weakened only if the Commerce Secretary could prove that the chase and encirclement method was not having a "significant adverse impact" on the diminishing dolphin population. Despite several attempts, no commerce secretary has yet been successful in proving this.

In his ruling, Henderson noted that Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Evans to change the labeling standard, and that four weeks later Evans issued a rule to permit purse seine nets as long as a shipboard observer could certify that no dolphins were killed or seriously injured in the process.

"The record convincingly demonstrates that the Secretary [of Commerce] nonetheless proceeded to sacrifice the integrity of the decision-making process by disregarding the best available scientific evidence in favor of political and diplomatic considerations," Henderson wrote.

Finally, almost 15 years after the original dolphin protection law was put into place, Henderson ruled in agreement with the nonprofit organizations that Evans' research was insufficient and the dolphin-safe labeling standards would be upheld.

Thomas of the USTF still suggested that retailers encourage customers to choose tuna from U.S. companies to make sure the tuna was caught under sustainable, dolphin-safe conditions.

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