Dolphin Safe Tuna

Dolphin Friendly Tuna

A few decades ago tuna fleets would regularly use dolphins to locate large schools of tuna.  This practice resulted in an unacceptable amount of dolphins being caught and killed in tuna nets every year.  Once major NGOs became aware of this practice they began large scale public education campaigns designed to change the way tuna were fished.  The resulting consumer backlash and boycotts against tuna brands led to new methods of tuna fishing that killed less dolphins and today most canned tuna products will have a “Dolphin Friendly” or “Dolphin Safe” label on the can.

Why Dolphins are Killed in Tuna Nets

Large schools of tuna regularly stay close to pods of dolphins. Since it is easier to find a pod of dolphins than a school of tuna fishermen will follow dolphin pods until they locate the tuna.  However as the tuna are surrounded by the fishermen many dolphins get caught up in the net.  The dolphins that get caught are usually mortally wounded or dead and are subsequently discarded as bycatch by the fishing fleet.  It is this fishing technique that led consumers to demand changes to tuna fishing practices.  As a result most major canned tuna for sale is now labeled ‘dolphin safe tuna’ or ‘dolphin friendly tuna’.  Technically this label will mean that the tuna was harvested in a manner that ensure no dolphins (or a small amount) were killed during the harvest.

Problems with Dolphin Safe Tuna and FADs

Tuna fishing vessels need to find tuna.  As a replacement for dolphins many fishing fleets now use Fish Aggregation Devices or FAD’s.  An FAD is a device that will attract tuna and make it easy for a fishing vessel to surround the tuna and quickly harvest them.  However, an FAD attracts more than just tuna and many marine animals are drawn to the FAD or to the fish that are attracted to it.  This includes sharks, turtles, juvenile fish and many other species of marine life.  When the tuna net is deployed a large number of these creatures are caught with the tuna and subsequently discarded as bycatch.  So while less dolphins are killed using an FAD a lot of other marine life is killed instead.  Ensuring that no dolphins die in tuna nets is a good thing however it is important to step back and ensure that all bycatch is reduced and the tuna is caught in a truly sustainable manner.  Purse seine net fishing is indiscriminate and unsustainable and will almost always result in a large amount of bycatch – whether it is dolphins, turtles, sharks or other marine life unfortunate enough to be found near a tuna harvest.

Dolphin Friendly Labels, Canned Tuna and Certification

The dolphin safe or dolphin friendly label does not have a single certification program or standard.  The U.S. developed their own label for dolphin safe tuna during the 90’s and in subsequent years other countries followed with their own versions of the dolphin friendly label.  In addition some environmental groups have also created their own labels that have more rigorous standards than the government label programs.  One of the most popular dolphin friendly labels is from the Earth Island Institute which includes language that offers slightly better dolphin protection than other certification labels.  This includes ensuring that no dolphins are killed or maimed during tuna harvesting and that any dolphins caught are set free without injury.  However, as with many dolphin safe certification programs, it is very hard to completely monitor the offshore fishing fleets and truly ensure that no dolphins are actually killed.