15 Years After Dolphin-Safe Tuna, Signs of Recovery

Bottlenose Dolphin
Bottlenose Dolphin Wikimedia Commons

Score one for consumer clout: dolphin populations in the heavily fished eastern tropical Pacific may be starting a recovery, according to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That stems (at least partly) from the early 1990s movement to make canned tuna "dolphin safe." Before tuna-fishing fleets adopted the practice, dolphin numbers in the Pacific had dwindled to between one-third and one-fifth of their original numbers, according to NOAA.

At the time, tuna fishing wasn't just a matter of accidentally catching dolphins: fishing boats pursued groups of dolphins - even scouted for them with helicopters - then surrounded them with nets to catch the hordes of tuna that swam with them. Now the tuna fleets use other methods, and the dolphin catch has dropped to nearly nil (from a 1970s high of 700,000 per year in the eastern Pacific). After far-ranging ocean surveys, NOAA scientists are encouraged by tentative signs of recovery in two of 10 dolphin species, but they still aren't sure why it has taken more than a decade.

The dolphin story may be headed for a happy ending, but our phenomenal appetite for tuna - well over 3 million metric tons every year - has shifted the burden to other species. Instead of setting nets around dolphin groups, fishermen switch their attention to floating debris and mid-ocean buoys, where they catch thousands of sea turtles, sharks, and slower sea-life along with the tuna.

If it sounds like fishermen are to blame here, remember that they're not eating all that tuna themselves. But fans of tuna melts and seared ahi (present bloggers included) do have choices. Some supermarkets have begun to carry "sustainable" canned tuna caught with old-fashioned hook and line. It's a more laborious method, but nearly everything that's landed is an actual tuna. The main adjustment you'll need to make: it's about $5 a can. The way I look at it, after decades spent gouging dolphins, maybe it's time we paid the price for a while. That's a consumer action I can get behind.

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