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What is Dolphin Safe Tuna?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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In many parts of the world, consumer pressure has led to the labeling and sale of dolphin safe tuna, which is tuna caught without harming or killing dolphins. These concerns arose in the 1980s, when public awareness campaigns by organizations like Greenpeace and the Earth Island Institute alerted consumers to the fact that thousands of dolphins were dying along with tuna every year. The thought of these lovable marine mammals being harvested along with tuna was revolting to many consumers, who started to boycott companies that harvested tuna in an unsafe way. The Earth Island Institute began offering a certification program for dolphin safe tuna, and numerous governments also began to create dolphin safe tuna laws and labels so that consumers could make informed choices about their purchases.

Dolphins are often caught up in the nets used for tuna because of the way in which tuna is harvested. Large circular nets are cast down in a very large area of ocean and then slowly contracted, picking up all of the marine life in the region. Dolphins can be caught in the nets and drowned, or experience severe trauma from the fishing nets. The contents of the nets are dumped on board the fishing ship, and any unwanted species, including dolphins, are tossed back into the water, whether or not they are dead. Drift nets, gill nets, and purse seines are all potentially deadly for dolphins.

There are ways to capture tuna without harming dolphins and other fish in the sea. After heavy consumer boycotting led to demands for dolphin safe tuna, many companies started exploring these humane options. In the United States, all tuna canneries tried to voluntarily obtain and sell dolphin safe tuna, and in 1991, the United States government enacted standards through the Department of Commerce which dictated the requirements for dolphin safe tuna labeling. In 1997, these requirements were controversially relaxed in response to industry pressure, leading to a rise in independent certifications by organizations like the Earth Island Institute.

Most government standards for dolphin safe tuna dictate that no dolphins can be killed or seriously injured in the process of fishing for tuna. Dolphins may be caught in nets, as long as they are not injured. Marine biologists argue that the trauma of being caught up in fishing nets constitutes an injury, but federal governments apparently do not agree. Independent certifications are more rigorous.

The Earth Island Institute offers a dolphin safe tuna label to companies which do not use drift nets, kill or injure dolphins in their nets, or harass dolphins during a fishing trip. Furthermore, dolphin safe and dolphin deadly tuna cannot be mixed in boat wells, and ships over 400 gross tons must submit to being accompanied by an independent observer.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By pleonasm — On May 14, 2011

Dolphin safe tuna labels should also be labeled "tuna safe". Catching a large bycatch is a ridiculous way of fishing and is one of the reasons tuna is becoming more and more expensive. It's because tuna fish are becoming more and more endangered. Catching unnecessary fish like that just means more fish are gone from the tunas' environment, which makes it harder for them to find their own food.

And dumping the dead, unwanted fish back into the ocean creates a pollution problem.

Our grandchildren are going to end up with no canned tuna, let alone no dolphins. It makes me sad.

By lluviaporos — On May 14, 2011

Ugh, to be honest I thought it was illegal now to fish in a way that would capture dolphins at all. I didn't bother looking for a dolphin safe tuna label because I assumed all tuna was dolphin safe. The wrong kinds of net fishing are just so awful for so many reasons. It not only gets dolphins, it can also catch birds and all kinds of sea creatures, wrecking the ecosystem, which further hurts dolphins and the tuna as well.

It seems it should be common sense not to use these nets and it annoys me that I have to even think about it.

By anon8921 — On Feb 24, 2008


i am a lover of dolphins and never buy any tuna that isn't dolphin safe!!

Dolphins are my favorite animals and are soooooooo smartical!!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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