Why Some “Dolphin Safe” Tuna Isn’t Safe for Dolphins!

5 actions to check if your canned tuna really is “dolphin safe” : Internet Scambusters #880

Nearly every can of tuna you can buy in the US contains a label saying that it’s dolphin safe. In other words, fishing techniques used are not harmful to our favorite sea mammal.

But some producers may be hiding behind the vague wording of laws that stipulate how dolphins should be protected.

In this week’s issue, we’ll explain what seems to be going wrong and the five steps you can take to avoid being tricked in the supermarket.

Let’s get started…


Why Some “Dolphin Safe” Tuna Isn’t Safe for Dolphins!


If you’re a tuna fan, you may have come across a can label that says the contents are “dolphin safe.”

You’d think that meant that dolphins were not put at risk in the catching of the fish.

That’s because thousands of these beautiful creatures, which are intelligent mammals, not fish, are killed every year when they get caught in trawler fishing nets.

In fact, the number runs into hundreds of thousands according to National Geographic magazine. Indeed, one report from marine environmental activists last year claimed an estimated 10,000 dolphins die or are killed by fisherman annually off just a small area of the French coast.

Campaigners say that even dolphins that are still alive when hauled in with the nets are brutally killed and thrown back into the ocean. Same applies to certain types of line fishing.

Which brings us back to our story.

Does “dolphin safe” mean dolphin safe?

Not always.

An organization we’ve written about before — Truth in Advertising (TIA) — says these claims are ignoring a law passed nearly 30 years ago. The Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act says the term can only be used if the tuna are caught in a manner that is not harmful to dolphins.

Clearly, net trawling and some types of multiple-line fishing are potentially harmful to dolphins.

As a result, a number of class action lawsuits have been launched against some of the country’s biggest tuna producers alleging they’re violating the 1990 law.

“Substantial” Deaths

The suits allege that the firms are using fishing techniques that lead to a “substantial” number of dolphin deaths every year, especially because tuna often gather together around dolphin pods.

TIA says that, in some cases, the companies actually acknowledge on their websites using some types of nets (“purse seine” nets) and longlines that are known to be hazardous to dolphins.

The lawsuits are ongoing, but early signs are that some producers are trying to wriggle out of the allegations by claiming they don’t actually own the fishing boats and, therefore, can’t control the techniques being used.

In at least one case, the lawsuit also alleges that a producer’s published declaration of membership of sustainability organizations was misleading because those organizations don’t support banning or controlling unsustainable fishing techniques.

Because of the pending action, most of the producers declined to comment to TIA about their fishing techniques, although they claimed to be “committed” to a dolphin safe policy.

The situation seems to be basically unchanged from a few years ago when Forbes magazine described the use of the “dolphin safe” label as being “a fraud.”

As the publication noted, the wording implies but doesn’t actually state that no dolphins are injured or killed.

“Most Americans think that the existence of a dolphin-safe label means that no dolphins were harmed when the tuna were caught,” wrote trade policy analyst William Watson.

“In truth, the label only means that one particular fishing method was not used in one particular part of the ocean.”

Actions You Can Take

So, what can we, as consumers do, to avoid being fooled by the dolphin safe claim?

Our scope is limited but here are a few pointers:

  • Be wary of canned tuna originating in Mexico, whether it’s labeled “dolphin safe” or not, because most Mexican fisheries use the previously mentioned “purse seine” technique, which involves the net closing like a money purse around the catch.┬áLast December, the World Trade Organization dismissed an appeal by Mexico that the US law discriminated against them.
  • Look for tuna that is caught on single pole lines. These fishing vessels trail multiple lines. Although dolphins may still get snagged, the incidence of this is lower than with net fishing. Single line fishing is in common use around New Zealand.
  • Look also for US-caught tuna. That’s because, although the legislation is open to misinterpretation, it is more strictly applied to US waters. In other parts of the world, canners are just dependent on the fishing companies’ say-so that it’s dolphin safe.
  • Check whether the source and processing of the tuna has been tracked and verified. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) runs the only government-recognized program that satisfies all federal regulations regarding tuna fishing.
  • Check the reputation of the producer. The environmental group Greenpeace publishes a Tuna Shopping Guide ranking of 20 well-known US brands, only four of which meet their top-rank criteria. We can’t vouch for its accuracy, or the degree to which it relates to dolphin safe claims, but you can check it out.

Apart from awareness of “dolphin safe” infringements, you might also think twice about the amount and type of tuna you consume. This is because of the amount of mercury some varieties contain. For more information on this, check out the US Food & Drug Administration “Best Choice” guide.

Alert of the Week

Are you on Medicare? Did you know it’s illegal for anyone (except firms you’ve agreed to) to call you or email you about getting durable medical equipment (DMEs) like back or leg braces?

It’s illegal because dubious sellers commonly contact people claiming they’re entitled to free DMEs and then send them equipment for which they either bill Medicare or the victims themselves.

They may even claim to be calling on behalf of Medicare and may ask for your Medicare number. Politely say “No thanks” and hang up. If you need a DME device, speak to your doctor or Medicare.

That’s all for today — we’ll see you next week.