America's "Dolphin Safe" Tuna Label Is a Fraud, Says Bill Watson, Cato Institute Policy Analyst

The production of canned tuna that does not involve the killing of dolphins has been a hot topic since the 1960s. Tuna fishermen have developed fishing methods that attempt to catch tuna without killing dolphins. At present, American consumers have a “dolphin safe” label to guide their buying practices. The tuna issue has even involved the World Trade Organization. Cato trade policy analyst Bill Watson reports that the label is a fraud, an argument he also makes in an article in Forbes.

Bill Watson

Bill Watson

Watson says that the issue has to do with where and how tuna are caught. In the eastern tropical Pacific, where Mexican fishermen work, tuna schools and dolphin swim together. Fishermen look for the dolphins and then set nets around them. The dolphin mortality problem arising from this approach has largely been fixed, Watson says. “The let the dolphins go, they have observers on the ships to make sure that no dolphins are harmed. U.S. law . . . flat out bans that practice” from getting a dolphin safe label.

This is particularly protectionist, Watson opines, because those who fish in a different part of the ocean find it very easy to get the label without having to prove that no dolphins were harmed. “The label is more about using a particular fishing method.” The effect of this has been to keep Mexican tuna out of American grocery stores. And it is not possible for these brands to say on their packaging how their methods are safe for dolphins or other wildlife. “It’s either ‘dolphin safe’ or nothing.”

Pointing out the obvious, Watson notes that the only 100% dolphin safe fishing method would be to use a fishing pole, something that is not commercially feasible. Commercial food production methods always involve a tradeoff of some kind. It probably comes down to how much money a customer is willing to spend on a particular item to obtain peace of mind. Watson suggests that perhaps the best approach is to offer a wide variety of products so that consumers can vote with their money. In the case of canned tuna, one option might be different grades of dolphin friendliness with prices that reflected the costs of doing business a particular way. Groups like Greenpeace could give out consumer information to allow customers to make intelligent choices.

K. William (Bill) Watson is a trade policy analyst with Cato’s Herbert A Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies. His research focuses on U.S. trade remedy policies, disguised protectionism, and the institutional aspects of global trade liberalization. He manages Free Trade, Free Markets: Rating The Congress, Cato’s online database that tracks votes by Congress and its individual members on bills and amendments affecting the freedom of Americans to trade and invest in the global economy. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.

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