Tuna Victory

Historic Victory for Dolphins and American Consumers

San Francisco, CA (August 9, 2004) - Federal Judge Thelton Henderson recently overturned a Commerce Department finding which sought to permanently weaken the US standards for labeling tuna products as "dolphin-safe."  AWI is a co-plaintiff in the case of Earth Island Institute, et al. v. Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans. In his ruling, Judge Henderson ordered the issuance of a new rule prohibiting the use of the "Dolphin Safe" label on any tuna caught by chasing and netting dolphins, a practice which historically has decimated dolphin populations and which continues to significantly harm these intelligent marine mammals. 

As a co-plaintiff, AWI has been following this case intently.  The Spring 2003 AWI Quarterly featured an article entitled "Protecting Dolphins in the Congress and the Courts" we discussed the case and we are extremely satisfied with the outcome.

Back in the 1980s, the Animal Welfare Institute was proud to play a role in the highly successful "Dolphin-safe" tuna labeling campaigns. These campaigns, spearheaded by our colleagues at the Earth Island Institute (EII), resulted in the world-wide recognition of the problems with tuna fisheries, whereby incidental bycatch of other marine animals, including dolphins was commonplace. The outcome had a ripple effect - a huge public outcry led to the introduction of the "Dolphin-safe" labeling, which prompted the fishermen to change their fishing practices, thus saving countless millions of dolphins and other marine creatures from certain death.

In December 2002 the US took a step back to the pre-label days of the 80s, when the Secretary of Commerce, Donald Evans issued a finding of "no significant adverse impacts" regarding the capture of tuna which would have allowed Mexico, Colombia, and other tuna fishing nations to label their tuna as "Dolphin-safe" and then to sell it in the US, even if it had been caught by the chasing, netting, and killing thousands of dolphins annually.

On January 9, 2003, Senator Barbara Boxer of California introduced a new bill to Congress that would preserve the original definition and intent of the dolphin-safe label on canned tuna fish, a label she presented in 1989. S. 130, Senator Boxer's "Truth in Labeling Act of 2003," would render moot the efforts of both the Clinton and Bush administrations to gut popular dolphin protection measures that prevent any can of tuna from being sold in the United States if it was obtained by using dolphins as targets to set tuna nets. In Boxer's own words, "My bill will guarantee that tuna products labeled 'dolphin safe' will be truly safe for dolphins."  This bill, co-sponsored by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts was referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation where it has languished.

In early Spring of 2003, EII along with eight other plaintiffs, including AWI, filed suit against the Secretary of Commerce, contending that the Evans decision had weakened the "Dolphin-safe" tuna label definition on the basis of trade politics, rather than science, as required by Congress. Further, EII took steps to obtain secret government memos demonstrating that biologists working for federal agencies knew that dolphin populations were not recovering, as a result of the tuna fishery. The documents revealed the US State Department, Mexico and other tuna fishing nations had put pressure on the biologists to ignore the scientific conclusions.

On April 10, 2003, Judge Henderson issued a preliminary injunction preventing the weakening of the "Dolphin-safe" label. The case again came before Judge Henderson in the District Court in San Francisco in March 2004.  On Monday August 9, 2004 Judge Henderson issued his decision in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the US Commerce Department to issue a new rule prohibiting the use of a "Dolphin-safe" label on any tuna products caught by netting dolphins.

The Judge noted that the Commerce Department's weakening of the "Dolphin-safe" label on tuna cans illegally ignored scientific evidence and must be overturned. He rebuked Secretary Evans, ruling that, "The record convincingly demonstrates that the Secretary [of Commerce] nonetheless proceeded to sacrifice the integrity of the decision-making process by disregarding the best available scientific evidence in favor of political and diplomatic considerations."  The Judge's 51-page ruling called the government's arguments "Orwellian", and stated that "[T]his Court has never, in its 24 years, reviewed a record of agency action that contained such a compelling portrait of political meddling."

Legal representation was ably provided by the law firm of Holme, Roberts and Owen, LLP. Other plaintiffs besides EII and AWI included: the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, the International Wildlife Coalition, the Oceanic Society and Samuel LaBudde.

The full ruling by Judge Henderson may be found here: 03-0007 Ruling.pdf


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