Earth Island defends “dolphin-safe” against think tank

The Earth Island Institute has issued a statement blasting a recent commentary from a libertarian think tank that criticized the “dolphin safe” labeling program in the United States.

In a statement headlined “Dolphin Safe Label Saves Dolphins!” David Phillips, executive director of Earth Island’s international marine mammal project and the project’s associate director, Mark Palmer, accused K. William Watson, a trade policy analyst with the Cato Institute, of “swallowing Mexican government propaganda hook, line and sinker.”

At issue is the ongoing dispute between Mexico and the United States over the program, which has been the subject of several rulings by the World Trade Organization (WTO) ever since Mexico filed a grievance with the WTO in 2008. While proponents of the program, including Earth Island, have said it is designed to protect vulnerable dolphin populations from exploitive tuna fishermen, opponents, now including Watson, say the program is an unofficial trade barrier designed to punish Mexican fishermen.

Watson’s commentary, which also appeared on, called the program “a fraud cooked up by special interests,” and said it benefited “a handful of major (tuna) brands.”

Phillips and Palmer, saying Watson “should get his facts straight,” denied that the labeling program applies strictly to a single type of unsustainable fishing and just in Mexican waters, as Watson argued.

“Watson is dead wrong that this is all the Dolphin Safe label means,” they wrote. “In fact, the federal Dolphin Safe law includes provisions that no dolphins can be killed or seriously injured in any ocean by any tuna fishing method, in order to qualify for the Dolphin Safe label. Watson (and his Greenpeace source) needs to go back and read the actual law.”

Phillips and Palmer defended the practice of forbidding “setting on dolphins,” or using speedboats to chase and encircle dolphins along with the tuna the fishermen are looking for. They denied Watson’s assertion that the WTO most recently ruled in favor of Mexico and against the program outright.

“The WTO decision, which Watson also has apparently not read, agreed that U.S. law blocking Mexico’s dolphin-deadly tuna from obtaining a dolphin safe label is justified on scientific grounds,” they wrote. “The WTO agreed with the US that the dolphin safe standards of no encirclement of dolphins are an important conservation measure. The WTO’s concerns with the U.S. law is that there are not uniform regulations confirming that no dolphins died in tuna nets in other tuna fisheries.”

Watson also called for amending regulations to include banning other unsustainable techniques, such as the use of Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs), but Phillips and Palmer said Earth Island is already pushing to reduce the use of FADs.

“Earth Island has worked with Safeway, Costco and various canners around the world to produce ‘FAD-free’ tuna that is caught without harming dolphins, by setting nets on free schools of tuna,” they wrote. “There is no inconsistency.”


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