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Environment : Dolphins Against Nets: The War Isn't Over Yet : Savoring victory in their campaign against U.S. tuna canners, environmentalists are mobilizing on new fronts. Drift nets and the European market are the next targets.

April 24, 1990|MICHAEL PARRISH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 20-year campaign to rescue the dolphins is far from over.

In the most significant step since passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the three major U.S. tuna canners, led by StarKist Seafood Co., have vowed to stop buying tuna that environmentalists consider "tainted" by any of several fishing techniques that collectively drown an estimated 100,000 dolphins a year.

"This was a shot heard round the world," said a gratified David Phillips, director of Earth Island Institute. Any country encouraging its fishing fleet to use such methods, said Phillips, "just saw the market drop out from under them, saw the biggest company in the world close the market to them. . . . It really has created a whole new ball game."

But while environmentalists savor their victory, they are also nailing down the details of the tuna packers' pledge and laying plans for new fishing-related campaigns.

"The battle moves now to the drift net, which is a major, global issue . . . much bigger than the connection to the tuna industry," said Barbara Britten after a recent meeting in Washington of the Dolphin Coalition, an ad hoc group of more than 30 conservation organizations. Britten is Washington representative of the oldest dolphin and whale conservation group in the world, the San Pedro-based American Cetacean Society.

Drift nets are a form of gill net--monofilament webs that snag fish by the gills. The drift nets are transparent, free-floating curtains that can stretch for 30 miles, entangling dolphins, whales, turtles, birds and non-food fish as well as the squid, swordfish and other marketable species that the fishermen seek. Environmentalists consider this the most destructive fishing technique ever invented. They commonly term it strip-mining of the sea. According to some estimates, from 50% to 70% of the animals killed in drift nets are simply thrown back into the sea.

Marine biologists say they have no idea how many dolphins drown in high-seas drift nets, but Robert L. Brownell Jr., chief of the marine mammals section of the National Ecology Research Center at San Simeon, said that the number "batted around" is 50,000 to 100,000. About the same number, he adds, are thought to be killed annually in gill nets set in coastal waters.

StarKist has long refused to buy tuna known to have been caught in drift and gill nets. Its recent announcement was to extend that voluntary ban to include fish caught in giant purse-seine nets in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. For reasons scientists can't explain, dolphins often swim over schools of particularly large tuna in that specific area. Fishermen look for dolphin to signal the presence of tuna below, then surround the fish with these nets, which resemble upside-down lampshades. As the net is cinched closed at the bottom to bring the fish to the surface, the air-breathing dolphin often become snared as well, drowning after only about four minutes trapped underwater. Others are injured and killed in the rigging and gears used to pull in the net.

The battle to stop this practice of "fishing on dolphin" will now move to Europe, second-largest canned tuna market after the United States.

"The work (immediately) ahead of us," said Lesley Scheele, international dolphin coordinator for Greenpeace, "is ensuring that we don't simply create a dolphin-safe market in the United States, only to see dolphin-tainted tuna flooding the market in Europe."

Gloomy U.S. tuna fishermen, who have depended on purse-seine nets, predict that foreign boats will move in on the waters vacated by the American fleet and concentrate on selling their catch to the European market.

Greenpeace will try to marshal the same kind of international consumer pressure that brought U.S. tuna canners to heel, using its 20 offices and some 1.5 million supporters who are already at work in Europe. Greenpeace is also targeting Australia and other lesser markets for consumer-education efforts.

Meanwhile, Barbara Britten and other members of the Dolphin Coalition think the StarKist pledge will help their principal campaign--support for pending federal legislation, introduced by California Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Millbrae) and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), to require "dolphin-safe" and "dolphin-unsafe" labels on tuna sold in the United States.

Although pleased by the StarKist plan, in which the company will apply its own dolphin-safe label, the coalition prefers a mandatory program over a voluntary plan "which may not be enforceable," said Britten.

Other environmentalists are more optimistic about voluntary efforts. "At this point, we think (the StarKist plan) will be enforceable," said Scheele of Greenpeace.

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