When Sam La Budde landed a job as cook on a Panamanian tuna boat, he told the captain that the video camera he carried along for the four-month trip was "just a gift from my father."
In fact, La Budde was a biologist on a mission to see whether foreign tuna boats were following rules intended to protect dolphins.
With the video camera, La Budde recorded what he said was a massacre of the intelligent marine mammals off the coast of Chile. The dolphins died in the vessel's fishing nets or were crushed in a winch on board, he said.
"You could hear them shrieking," said La Budde, 31, who returned to California last month. "In one set (of the net) we killed 200 dolphins to catch 10 tuna."
Now the video has galvanized a host of environmental groups that launched a boycott of canned tuna Monday and that plan to file a lawsuit in federal court to stop the dolphin killings. Separately, the video is to be shown at Senate subcommittee hearings Wednesday in Washington, which will decide whether federal laws protecting dolphins should be renewed.
Dolphin kills associated with tuna fishing are unique to the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, which stretches from Southern California to Chile. There, yellowfin tuna inexplicably congregate beneath schools of dolphins, which are easily spotted gliding near the water's surface.
Tuna boats encircle both schools with mile-long nets that are hoisted back on board with a winch. Fishermen are supposed to release as many dolphins as possible, although some inevitably die or are injured, fishing industry officials said.
U.S. and foreign fleets used the method to catch about 82,000 tons of yellowfin tuna in the region in 1987, officials said. About 100,000 dolphins are thought to have died in the process.
"They are only doing it because it is cheaper and faster to catch tuna that way," said Todd Steiner, a research biologist for Earth Island Institute of San Francisco. "Our goal is to reduce the dolphin kills to zero."
On Monday, environmental groups, including the Earth Island Institute, Marine Mammal Fund and the Sea Shepherd Society of Redondo Beach, launched a boycott of canned tuna with demonstrations held at the Long Beach office of J. H. Heinz Co., which produces Star-Kist brand tuna, and at the St. Louis headquarters of Ralston Purina Co., which produces Chicken of the Sea tuna.
At Long Beach, about 20 demonstrators carried placards that said "Sorry Charlie--Star-Kist Kills Dolphins" and shouted, "Save the dolphins, boycott Heinz."
"We want to wake up the tuna industry to the fact that people are outraged over the killing of hundreds of thousands of dolphins each year for corporate profit," said Peter Wallerstein, director of the Sea Shepherd Society, a marine mammal conservation group. "They are sacrificing these beautiful, intelligent animals for corporate interest."
But David Burney, a spokesman for the U.S. Tuna Foundation in Washington, suggested in a telephone interview that La Budde's experience was "an aberration" and that the environmentalists' boycott and lawsuit may backfire.
"Not buying tuna does not save one dolphin's life," Burney said. "Foreign fleets can simply turn their backs on the U.S. and sell to Europe."
Conservationists said a lawsuit is to be filed today in U.S. District Court in San Francisco against the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Marine Fisheries Service for allegedly failing to enforce laws that protect dolphins during fishing. La Budde's video is to be used as evidence in support of the lawsuit.
"La Budde's video is what you might call a smoking gun," said attorney Elisabeth Robinson, who filed the suit on behalf of the Earth Island Institute and the Marine Mammal Fund. "This is an example of a Panamanian vessel paying no attention to U.S. regulations. Yet the United States continues to certify their fleets."
Dolphins--considered highly intelligent and friendly toward humans--may not be hunted, captured, killed or harassed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. However, the tuna industry won a provision in 1981 that permits the 35 boats in the U.S. tuna fleet to kill up to 20,500 of the animals each year.
In 1984, Congress banned the importation of tuna from any nation that did not meet dolphin kill rates comparable to those of the U.S. fleet. But after a study, the National Marine Fisheries Service decided last month to give foreign fleets until 1991 to reduce their kill rates to the U.S. level.
"Without an allowable kill rate you would shut down the tuna industry," said Charlie Fullerton, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service. But La Budde's video has environmentalists convinced that such actions are unenforceable and unlikely to stop the netting that has killed an estimated 6 million dolphins over the last 20 years, Steiner said.
"Only 5% to 10% of all tuna caught is taken out of the eastern tropical Pacific," Steiner said. "In other words, 95% of the world's tuna is caught without harming dolphins."
"It may be 5% of the total market caught this way--but you are talking about stopping a huge industry," said Robert Solomon, senior biologist for the Porpoise Rescue Foundation, a pro-fishing industry group based in San Diego. "What are you going to do, put a fence around 8 million square miles of ocean?"