Dolphin-Safe Tuna

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Dolphin-Safe Tuna

Key Takeaways


This is a deep dive into the concept of ‘Dolphin-safe Tuna’ that covers the history of dolphin-safe tuna, advocacy of safe policies, current regulation/labeling, and the current state of the concept. The research relies on credible historical sources that outlined the push for ‘Dolphin-safe Tuna’, which began in 1986.

Grounds For The Push For Dolphin Safe Tuna

  • Fishing using purse seine nets between 1950 and 1990 killed around 7 million dolphins. Between 1960 and 1980, around 500,000 dolphins died annually, and 100,000 died annually in the late 1980s.
  • Dolphins died in such large numbers since fishing for tuna then involved the use of purse seine nets that caught tuna by "spotting, herding and encircling dolphins on the surface" to catch the fish easily. This was considered an easier way to catch yellowfin tuna because they followed and schooled under the dolphins.
  • According to National Geographic, "in 1990 the U.S. enacted the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act. Under the law, “dolphin safe” meant that no canned tuna could carry the label if dolphins were chased, encircled, or killed."

Advocacy Against Unsafe Tuna Fishing Practices

Earth Island Institute
  • It was because of this insane number of dolphins death that Earth Island Institute, which in 1986 sponsored the International Marine Mammal Project to "urge U.S. tuna companies to end the practice of intentionally chasing and netting dolphins with purse seine nets, and to adopt "Dolphin Safe" fishing practices preventing the drowning of dolphins in tuna nets."
Samuel LaBudde
The Infamous Tuna Boycott

Early Adopters of Dolphin Safe Tuna

  • It was sheer pressure from consumers around the world that prompted major tuna suppliers in April 1990 to engage in dolphin-friendly practices and start labeling their products as dolphin-safe.
  • In April 1990, Starkist Seefood Co. was the first company to adopt the Dolphin-Safe Tuna policy. In a press release on April 12, 1990, Starkist announced that it would "no longer buy tuna caught with methods that kill dolphins."
  • Immediately after the Starkist announcement, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea, suppliers of canned tuna, also announced that they would adopt a dolphin-safe policy. At that time theses three companies accounted for almost 75% of the US tuna market, with Starkist Seefood Co. having the largest share at 35%.
  • Other companies in the American Samoa, that have over the years, adopted dolphin-safe practices and become approved dolphin-safe tuna fishing and processing companies include;

Legislation and Labeling of Dolphin Safe Tuna


  • After major suppliers in the U.S. adopted the dolphin-safe label, the U.S. government, on October 1990, enforced an "import ban on tuna from countries that kill more dolphins than the United States does."
  • In November 1990, Congress established the first dolphin-safe standard for tuna, an amendment to the Dolphin Protection and Consumer Information Act of 1990.
  • The amendment required "the label of any tuna product exported from or offered for sale in the United States which contains tuna harvested with driftnets or in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean with purse seine nets to bear the statement, "THE TUNA IN THIS PRODUCT WAS CAUGHT WITH METHODS THAT KILL DOLPHINS."
  • The amendment ensured that any person that produces, advertises, sells, imports, or exports tuna without using a label indicating that dolphins were not harmed would suffer civil penalties. It also imposed both civil and criminal penalties on individuals who knowingly mislabel their products.
The US Commerce Department Label
The “Dolphin Safe Fishing” Label
The Flipper Seal of Approval
  • In 1988, Hawaii-based NGO Earth Trust set up the “Flipper Seal of Approval.” It is an internationally recognized labeling standard for tuna fishing that avoids the killing of dolphins.
  • US legislation on dolphin safe tuna has been contested at the WTO, NAFTA, and other free trade treaties. Since the Flipper Seal of Approval is a voluntary program, it is immune to such regulation disputes.
  • For companies to receive this label, observers of Earth Trust have to monitor the actual fishing processes.

Current State of Dolphin Safe Tuna

Controversy of Dolphin Safe Tuna
  • According to the US Consumers Union, the dolphin-safe label is misleading as the verification of dolphin safe standards is not universal and compliance to tuna standards is voluntary.
  • There are further claims that the regulation of "dolphin safe" standards is not done by objective parties. For example, to receive "Dolphin Safe Fishing" label from the Earth Island Institute, companies have to donate to the institute. Such donations can affect the objectivity in awarding seals of approvals.
  • Concerns that the "dolphin safe" label is a misleading statement since it does not guarantee the safety of dolphins have been raised with claims that it does not mean that dolphins are not being killed. Further, the current fishing techniques used encourage over-fishing beyond the level of natural replenishment.
  • In 2019, CBS News reported that Chicken of the Sea, StarKist and Bumble Bee Foods had been accused of misleading consumers by marketing their products as 'dolphin-safe'. According to the suits filed at the time in the federal court in California, as highlighted in the CBS article, "the three brands don't always use safer, but more expensive, pole-and-line and other techniques favored by competitors including Trader Joe's and Whole Foods."
Ongoing Push for Dolphin-Safe Practices
  • The International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) continues to push for the adoption of dolphin-safe practices, including the installation of CCTV systems in tuna vessels for monitoring purposes. The Founder and Director of Friend of the Sea and Director of International Programs for the IMMP Dolphin Safe program, Paolo Bray says that "CCTVs can really help the Dolphin Safe program in monitoring the actual fishing method, in particular on board purse seiners. A couple of cameras can allow viewing and monitoring the deployment of the nets and making sure that no dolphins are in the net at the time of deployment, nor when the tuna catch is unloaded on deck and in the wells."
  • The IMMP as an organization hopes that "by the end of 2022, the combination of the CCTV services will allow for an even more thorough monitoring and further reassurance of consumers regarding the Dolphin Safe status of the tuna and Friend of the Sea sustainability certification."
  • As a country, the United States continues to implement the Tuna Tracking and Verification Program (TTVP), established under the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act. The program is used by the National Oceanic and Atmosperic Administration (NOAA) Fisheries to monitor compliance with dolphin-safe tuna labeling.

Research Strategy

For this research on Dolphin-Safe Tuna, we leveraged credible resources in the public domain. We relied on news and industry reports such as the Washington Post and Global Non-Violent Action Database. Notably, the research brief relied on credible historical sources that outlined the push for ‘Dolphin-safe Tuna’, which began in 1986. Recent sources, such as Forbes, did not outline the requested insights such as leading firms that moved to save dolphins. We could not find information on the sequence of companies signing to the label. Most articles such as the Washington Post only mention the first three companies that adopted the label. Even so, we found and included some brands that were the early adopters of dolphin-safe tuna and others that have been approved as dolphin-safe tuna fishing and processing companies.

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