Environmentalists sue over 'dolphin-safe' label


Published: Friday, January 3, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 3, 2003 at 1:45 a.m.

SAN FRANCISCO - Environmentalists have sued the federal government in an effort to prevent it from labeling tuna as ''dolphin safe" if fishermen encircled the mammals to catch the fish.

The Earth Island Institute and other groups filed a lawsuit in federal court late Tuesday, hours after the Commerce Department revised labeling standards.

The government said tuna that fishermen catch by encircling dolphins may immediately be imported into the United States and bear the dolphin-safe label if observers certify that no dolphins were killed or seriously injured in the process. Under the old definition of dolphin-safe, no tuna could bear the label commonly seen on cans sold in the United States if it was caught using dolphins as targets.

Dolphin commonly swim with schools of tuna. Various reports have said between 2,000 and 3,000 dolphins are killed annually in connection with tuna fishing in the eastern Pacific. Dolphin fatalities numbered in the hundreds of thousands decades ago, prompting new international efforts - and the emergence of the dolphin-safe label - to better protect the mammals.

In seeking to overturn the new dolphin-safe definition, environmental groups charged that the Bush administration is sacrificing dolphins and misleading consumers in the name of free trade. The lawsuit said targeting dolphins during tuna fishing can hurt the mammals in ways observers may not notice. For instance, it said the practice can separate mothers from their offspring and stress dolphins to the point of ''fatal heart damage."

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