That can of tuna on the supermarket shelf might say "dolphin safe", but in reality it may not be.
The Clinton administration, acting at the direction of Congress, gave the go-ahead Thursday for processors and canneries to use the "dolphin-safe" label on tuna caught in large, encircling nets. The controversy centers of the problem that such nets also snare dolphins, which naturally swim amidst schools of tuna.
The Commerce department said there was insufficient evidence to say that this method of catching tuna has had a "significant adverse impact" on the dolphin population.
The use of encircling nets to catch tuna had been thought to kill more than 100,000 dolphins a year and 1990 a ban on the importation of ban of tuna caught by such methods was enacted. That, in turn resulted in all tuna sold in the United States being marked "dolphin safe", a label that has been around for nearly a decade.
The dolphin death toll has declined dramatically to fewer than 3,000 a year, and Congress in 1997 said the entire issue should be re-examined. It lifted the import embargo and directed a review on whether there should be a change in how the label is used.
Terry Garcia, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, said observers on tuna boats still must verify that dolphins were not killed or seriously injured if the tuna is to carry the "dolphin safe" label.
But encirclement, in itself, no longer will bar use of the label, officials said. "This method of encirclement on the whole is better for the marine environment because it reduces bycatch of other species," Garcia said in an interview.
It was unclear how much impact the change would have on grocery shelves.
Wary of a possible consumer backlash and already facing a glut in the tuna market, the three major tuna processors -- Star-Kist, Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee -- have said they would continue using only tuna caught by methods other than encirclement. The three processors share about 90 percent of the U.S. tuna market.
But some conservationists say the change may allow some store-brand tuna to carry a "dolphin-safe" label no matter how the fish is caught, and confuse consumers. "This will cheapen the label. It will confuse consumers," said John Fitzgerald, who as an environmental lobbyist helped write the legislation in 1990 that led to the "dolphin safe" labeling.
"It's consumer fraud and a death warrant for thousands of dolphins," insisted David Phillips, director of Earth Island Institute's marine mammal project near San Francisco.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, under the 1997 congressional measure, is required to pursue further studies and issue another review in 2002. The report will revisit the idea on whether the use of large encircling nets to catch tuna causes "significant adverse impact" the
If they find the impact is significant, the definition of "dolphin safe" may once again change, officials aid.
Meanwhile the conservation community is anything but united on the issue.
Some environmentalists as well as lawmakers cite statistics that show the number of dolphins has not increased, although moralities have declined sharply over the past decade.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., wrote Commerce Secretary William Daley earlier this week, urging that the "dolphin label" remain as is "until we ensure that dolphin stocks are actually recovering."
But the lifting of the import embargo and change in labeling criteria has had support from such groups as Greenpeace, the Center for Marine Conservation and the Environmental Defense Fund. They all argue that the usefulness of the U.S. import ban has passed and that further restrictions including the current definition of the label only blocks international action to protect the dolphin and other marine life.
They say that the "dolphin-safe" label as it now is defined stands in the way of international action because other countries, including Mexico, will not participate in dolphin protection unless the U.S. market is reopened without restrictions.