Environmental groups asked a federal court Tuesday to halt a rule that they say would weaken the "dolphin safe" label on canned tuna and dramatically increase the number of deaths among the ocean mammals.
For 12 years, the label had guaranteed consumers that the tuna was caught by nets that did not surround and harm dolphins. But in December, a new rule by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration applied the label to tuna captured in encircling nets.
The Earth Island Institute and six other groups asked the U.S. District Court in San Francisco for an injunction to the new rule, arguing that science -- and not trade concerns -- should guide environmental policy.
The fishing practice allowed by the new rule continues to kill, injure and harass thousands of dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean every year, they say. If the new rule remains in effect, it will open the U.S. market to supplies from Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Vanuatu, where vessels chase down and encircle dolphins to catch the tuna that swim with them.
If the tougher label survives, however, the Mexican government has threatened to bring barrier-to-trade charges against the United States before the World Trade Organization.
Stanley Minasian, president of the Animal Fund in San Francisco, a plaintiff, said the new federal rule would remove dolphin protections.
"If the Latin Americans and the Bush administration have their way, thousands of dolphins will die every year," Minasian said. "They get caught up in the nets, and they drown. The mothers and babies get separated, and the babies die."
The environmentalists' suit names the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose new rule said the encircling fishing practice would no longer disqualify tuna from a "dolphin safe" label as long as independent on-vessel observers certified that no dolphins had been killed or injured during
William Hogarth, head of the oceanic administration, said there wasn't enough evidence to show that the encircling nets had a significant role in the continued decline of some dolphin species.
In response to the suit, Connie Barclay, a spokeswoman for the oceanic administration, said, "We will review their brief and submit our own comments to the judge."
The case goes before Judge Thelton Henderson, who over the last decade has generally ruled in favor of dolphin protections. He ruled in 1999 that the government couldn't weaken the criteria for the label in the absence of study showing that the fishing practice wasn't harming dolphins.
Armed with recent footage taken off the Galapagos Islands showing 50 or more dolphins dead or dying in a purse-seine net, the environmental groups say they don't trust the observers, many of whom are pressured by the fishermen. The groups also argue that the observers can't measure stress or separation of mothers and babies.
They cite a 100-page study prepared by the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla (San Diego County), part of the Commerce Department, stating concerns that the "practice of chasing and encircling dolphins somehow is adversely affecting the ability of these depleted stocks to recover."
Three weeks before Hogarth issued the new rule, Secretary of State Colin Powell sent a letter asking him to carefully review the evidence before making his decision.
The Department of State has an interest in this matter, Powell wrote, because the finding would profoundly affect its role as leader in an international agreement among 14 nations and the European Union that has been very successful in reducing dolphin deaths.
State Department officials didn't return requests for a comment on Powell's letter.