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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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Exactly what makes some tuna deserving of dolphin-safe labels is up for debate. The White House wants to broaden the criteria for the labels. Host Steve Curwood talks with California Senator Barbara Boxer, who wrote the original dolphin-safe rules in 1990.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Odds are if you buy tunafish you’ve seen the dolphin-safe logo on the side of the can. The label means the tuna was caught without encircling dolphins. Fishermen follow dolphins to catch tuna because the two species tend to run together in the eastern Pacific. The practice was one responsible for killing tens of thousands of the marine mammals.

The Bush administration now says new technology lets fishermen encircle dolphins without harming them, so it wants to let them use the dolphin-safe label on their cans even if they still encircle dolphins while hunting tuna.

Joining me is Barbara Boxer, the Democratic senator from California who wrote the original legislation for the dolphin-safe labels.

Senator Boxer, the White House says as long as the dolphins aren’t killed in the nets the practice of encircling them is okay. What’s wrong with that logic?

BOXER: Well, there are several things wrong with the logic. First of all, we don’t now require, because of the administration’s point of view, any verification, so you’re not sure if the dolphin are killed. That’s number one. Second, the science shows that just the practice of purse seining on dolphin--that is, encircling them, chasing them, and all the rest that goes with it, throwing the net over them--is harmful because the calves are separated from the mothers. And it’s obviously causing a lot of trauma for the dolphin because the populations are down.

So, to me, the consumer is about to be misled when they’re going to see this dolphin-safe label, think it’s fine, and then, in reality, it’s not fine.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about the scientists for a moment. Recently, two former government scientists stepped forward and said that their dolphin research documented that this encircling was harmful to dolphins and their ability to reproduce. They say their work has been suppressed both by the Bush administration but also the Clinton administrations. I’m wondering, what’s the motivation here? Why would the US government feel pressure to squelch research that shows that encircling dolphins did in fact cause a level of stress that was dangerous to the dolphins?

BOXER: The issue of trade has taken front and center stage, not only with this administration, with others as well. And we started this argument with the Clinton administration when they started to weaken the label. But the Bush administration has taken it a major step forward and they are gutting the label. And it’s a sad situation, especially for an administration that says put science first. They have, in fact, shunted aside scientists who are coming up with the conclusion that this encircling and this purse seining actually harms the dolphin.

CURWOOD: You say that interests of trade are what are being put ahead of the dolphins. What do you mean by that?

BOXER: Well, what’s happening is there are a number of countries that still fish for tuna using the dolphin as the key and encircling and throwing nets over them. We’re looking at Ecuador, we’re looking at Peru, we’re looking at Mexico, others. And they want to have access to our market.

Now, my view is, I’m all for that. But if they want the label, then they have to change their fishing ways. If they want to import tuna and not have the label, that’s fine with me. I know people who won’t buy it. But that’s why this is so cynical. This isn’t really about trade, this is about a mindless attitude toward saving this beautiful species.

CURWOOD: Now, I understand that, in fact, you are proposing amendments - really new legislation in response to what's going on. What would this do exactly?

BOXER: I’ve already introduced the legislation. It would actually go back to the 1990 bill that I wrote, essentially saying that you cannot get this dolphin-safe label if you harm the dolphin by using the purse seine nets. That’s basically what it, in essence, does.

CURWOOD: I just want you, for a moment, to take us back in history. Can you give us a sense of how the dolphin-safe labeling became such a major issue and what the response was back in 1990 when you introduced your original legislation?

BOXER: Environmental groups did some exposes in the ‘80s in which they really taught us that there were fishing techniques being used in the tuna fisheries that were harming the dolphin and killing the dolphin. My thought was, first of all, to stop the purse seining on dolphin, to make it illegal.

And then the second thought was, because we knew that would raise a lot of issues, why don’t we just say: let the consumer decide. That was the philosophy that I took on and said, let’s have a label. And if our tuna people want to catch the tuna in a way that doesn’t harm the dolphin, they’ll get the dolphin-safe label.

Well, I was thrilled to see the big tuna companies came forward-- Starkist, Bumblebee, Chicken of the Sea-- and it was fabulous. We had long meetings and they backed my legislation and it got through in 1990.

Before that legislation passed, the kids of America had gotten together through the leadership of some of the parents and said, we’re going to boycott tuna sandwiches. You know, that was the famous sandwich you took to school. They were boycotting the tuna, we had the tuna companies came forward, the environmentalists led the way in terms of what was happening, and using all that we got our legislation through.

CURWOOD: Barbara Boxer is a senator, Democratic senator from California. Thank you so much for taking this time.

BOXER: Thank you.



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