Dolphin Safe Tuna: The Illusion of a Feel-Good Conservation Story
by Kameron Schroeder
When consumers of tuna and environmentally conscious citizens viewed the 1988 footage biologist Samuel LaBudde had filmed aboard a Panamanian tuna fishing vessel in the Eastern Tropical Pacific they were shocked.  The footage showed thousands of dolphins that had been caught in tuna nets dying and people were outraged. People from all over the world began to boycott Tuna, putting so much pressure on canned tuna manufacturers that in 1990, the three major tuna companies: StarKist, Bumblebee, and Chicken of the Sea, agreed to stop purchasing from companies that used fishing methods that put dolphins at risk.  Congress also took the publics outrage a step further, and with the help of the International Marine Mammal Project, passed an act in 1990 entitled the Dolphin Information Consumer Protection Act that set standards for dolphin safe-tuna in the United States.  However, even though the “dolphin-safe” fishing practices this act spawned saved thousands of dolphins from drowning in tuna nets, the net species lost from the new methods that followed were even worse. Fishery observer programs combined with new and innovative hook designs provide promising solutions to this problem.
During the time of Samuel LaBudde’s 1988 footage, tuna were generally caught using a method of fishing that involved purse seining, which involves using a giant net with an open bottom to catch large schools of tuna. The problem with this method is that the easiest way to locate tuna is to set on dolphins. “Setting” on dolphins is a technique where tuna fishermen search for pods of dolphins feeding on bait fish at the surface. After spotting a dolphin pod, fishermen then encircle the dolphins with large purse seine fishing nets, trapping the dolphins inside. This technique was utilized because dolphins feeding on bait fish at the surface are a good indicator that beneath the surface, tuna are present feeding on the bait fish as well.  Setting on pods was an easy way to catch large schools of tuna, but many dolphins were killed from drowning and being crushed by fishing equipment. After the outrage associated with purse seining, fishermen switched to another method that utilized Fish Aggregating Devices.
Fish Aggregating Devices, or FADs, are floating pieces of debris that fish tend to congregate on in the ocean.  Since there is very little shelter in the open ocean, small fish will swim to any piece of floating debris seeking shelter.  Larger and larger fish eventually follow creating a small ecosystem of open ocean species. Tuna fishermen recognized this behavior and with the new restriction against purse seining, began to use it to their advantage.  Tuna fishermen now set large amounts of rafts afloat in the ocean for weeks at a time, returning to set their nets and catch the tuna.  Unfortunately, there are numerous other important marine species that congregate there.
Studies have shown that though FADs are very effective at reducing the number of dolphin bycatch deaths, the impact of FADs on other species is extreme. Researchers estimate that FAD use causes over 182,000 tons of bycatch, meaning species that are not intended to be caught, every year.  The species caught include vulnerable species such as sharks and turtles. The bycatch numbers are having significant effects on shark and turtle populations, with many of the species now listed as endangered due in part to these fishing practices.   Though we have almost eliminated dolphin bycatch, we have created another environmental tragedy.
Unfortunately, solving this problem isn’t as easy as the dolphin-safe tuna issue. With growing global demand for Tuna, safer methods such as long line fishing (with turtle and bird safe circle hooks) are not sufficient.  We cannot demand for all tuna to be pole caught, as the prices of this method would put tuna out of the market.
Successful bycatch reduction measures specifically targeting loggerhead turtles have been implemented in Hawaii.  These measures require a third-party observer to be present on all boats with Hawaii Longline Limited Access permits.  Meticulous tallies are kept on the number of loggerhead turtles caught and the types of other species caught. If the bycatch numbers for a species become higher than a previously set quota, the fishing season is declared over for all fishermen in the area. This provides an incentive for fishermen to reduce their bycatch numbers as much as possible in order to prevent their fishing season from ending early. Studies showed that when these methods are combined with turtle-safe circle hooks, bycatch numbers are significantly reduced while not adversely affecting target species catch rates. 
If you would like to reduce your contribution to bycatch, the best option is to abstain from eating tuna and other seafood all together. However, if you would like to still eat tuna, but ethically and sustainably, buying tuna from cans that state the tuna is pole caught and is caught in waters with adequate populations is your best bet.  To make this easier, consider downloading the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watchlist App on your phone for information about what types of fish are okay to eat. Without widespread adoption of observer programs and safe fishing practices, these are currently the best options to eat tuna sustainably.
I think you did an incredible job of detailing the progression and subsequent shortcomings of “dolphin-safe” fishing practices. Before reading your piece, I had never heard of Fish Aggregating Devices, nor was I aware of their devastating effects to aquatic life. Fortuntaley, you proposed a viable way to move forward: a combination of bycatch quotas and turtle-safe circle hooks. Moreover, you outlined how your readers can make a difference on an individual consumer level by buying tuna that is caught ethically and sustainably. I’m glad I read this piece because I definitely fell into the trap of believing modern fishing techniques were significantly safer for other species of aquatic life than previous methods, such as purse seining.
People assume dolphin safe tuna is also environmentally sustainable as a whole. I think it’s really interesting how you delved into what some think is a finished issue, by catch. It’s also interesting how you lay out a contrast between human concern for dolphins vs. the lack of concern for other marine species. Why is it that the only animals that stir humans to action have to be viewed by us in a positive, benevolent light? It raises the question of what specific species matter most and does their value rely wholly on what we, as humans, assign it?
Jack M. comment:
This is an insightful and well-written blog post about a fascinating issue. It is an interesting case study as to the power of imagery in agenda setting. The footage provided by the biologist motivated the public to make such a stark change in their consumption patterns that the fishing companies had to react. Had the video captured the species impact on turtles or on sharks, it is likely that we would be purchasing turtle-safe instead of dolphin safe tuna. I like the suggestion that we can use pole caught tuna and keep an eye on that watch list to avoid contributing to bycatch, though it raises interesting questions about valuation of reducing bycatch. Abstaining from seafood entirely would be the most effective way to eliminate bycatch, but could result in reductions in the health of people who eat a diet high in fish, pitting human health against the health of marine species.
This is a very interesting topic. Before reading this post, I thought that because store-bought tuna is dolphin-safe, that means it is 100% ethically caught, however that is obviously not the case. I wonder, then, if tuna farming is the next step forward in the tuna industry. Tuna farming is a new endeavor, but I think it could be a much more efficient way of acquiring the fish if implemented correctly. Tuna are predators though. They need to eat small fish, which means that tuna farming requires the maintenance of a small ecosystem. However, I’ve seen efforts to create tuna feed that does not consist heavily of fish, which could make the farming effort much more feasible.
I think this is a very informative blog. It is surprising to learn that products such as dolphin safe tuna, which brand themselves as environmental friendly, are not always what people assumed they are. It is interesting for you to point out that dolphin safe tuna is just a feel-good story that is caused by the media portrait of dolphins by catch while conveniently ignoring the by catch of other endangered species. Your blog prompts me to wonder the truth lies behind other similar conservation illusions.
I really enjoyed reading this post for a couple reasons: 1) The article exposes some of the unsustainable practices employed by the seafood industry – practices that most consumers are unaware of when purchasing canned tuna from their local grocery store. Unfortunately, it is often the case that some disaster or highly publicized event has to take place, like La Budde’s 1988 footage, in order change to be implemented. I think it is also worthy to point out that such change is more likely to happen when a marine species as popular as dolphins is being affected rather than lesser known species. 2) I also appreciate how you provided ways in which readers can promote sustainable tuna fishing. As public awareness of FADs and bycatch deaths increases, so does the potential for consumer-based change to be implemented in the tuna fishing industry.
Great job incorporating what we learned in Marine Megafauna into the policy conversation, Kameron. Your explanation of purse seining vs FADs is very accurate and your concerns about FADs are well founded. It’s a shame that most fishermen can’t seem to find a sustainable AND cheap way to catch tuna. I think what deters people from buying pole/line caught tuna is the price, as I believe it is about a dollar more expensive than the standard “dolphin safe” labels. I think in Marine Mega we also learned about using aircraft to spot schools, which may be more costly/ less productive but reduces the risk of bycatch. Because so many countries use fish as their main source of protein, I believe we should continue to invest in sustainable methods with reduced bycatch, as this may be our best option to make it cheaper for everyone so that they stop using the FADs.
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