‘Dolphin-Safe’ Tuna

NOAA Tracking Program Verifies Claims


Tuna captured inside purse seine (net).

Tuna captured inside purse seine (net).

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Anyone who has purchased a can or pouch of tuna in the United States is probably familiar with the “dolphin-safe” label found on most of those tuna products. But, have you ever wondered whether that tuna really is dolphin-safe? Who, if anyone, attempts to verify the claims?  

Fortunately for tuna (and dolphin) lovers, the answer to the last question is NOAA. NOAA Fisheries Service’s Sustainable Fisheries Division operates what’s known as the Tuna Tracking and Verification Program (TTVP). Through a series of spot-checks, this group randomly samples tuna from retail markets to verify the truthfulness of dolphin-safe advertising claims.

Students ‘Go Fish’ for Dolphin-Safe Tuna

This year, the National Marine Fisheries Service Southwest Regional Office in Long Beach, Calif., envisioned a way to involve schoolchildren in tuna tracking. Collaborating with NOAA’s Office of Education, the Fisheries Service launched a pilot program in which volunteer students from six Texas schools (middle school to high school) purchased canned and pouched tuna from their local stores and sent them back to the TTVP for verification. All samples checked confirmed that the dolphin-safe claims made on the merchandise were true.

Albacore tuna.

“This project benefits both NOAA and students,” said Bill Jacobson, coordinator for this new program. “It saves NOAA the expense of having to send employees on travel to collect the tuna samples, and it provides students an opportunity to learn about the fishery as well as to have a direct impact on an important national monitoring process – even though they may live a thousand miles from the ocean.”

Marianne Garcia, of Lockhart, Texas, came up with the idea of offering extra credit to each of her students who purchased samples. The class then chose four of those samples and sent them to the TTVP, donating the rest to a local food bank. 

“This project not only provided a way for students to learn about the meaning of  ‘dolphin-safe’ and why it’s important, but was also an opportunity to tie into lessons about how tuna and other food goes from its source to the store,” said Garcia. “Many of the kids had never really made that connection before.”

Dolphins.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Based on the success of this pilot project, Jacobson hopes the partnership with schools will be expanded to other locations across the country. “This can be a win-win situation for all involved,” he said.

Protecting Dolphin Stocks a Priority for the Nation

In the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, dolphins and tuna are known to swim together in closely packed schools. Fishermen normally looked for dolphin schools, knowing that they’ll find tuna swimming underneath them. Then they would set a purse seine, a huge net, that would encircle the school of tuna and dolphins. A process known as backdown enables the dolphins to escape from the net, leaving only tuna.

Dolphins in net.

Dolphins in net.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Because of the unique association between tuna and dolphins found only in these tropical waters, and the purse seine fishery it supports, protecting dolphin stocks has become a priority for the United States. As a result, the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act was passed in 1990. One of the mandates of this legislation was to establish a national tuna tracking program.   

While the internationally accepted definition of dolphin-safe is “tuna caught in sets in which dolphins are not killed or seriously injured,” the U.S. definition is more restrictive. It requires that “no tuna were caught on the trip in which such tuna were harvested using a purse seine net intentionally deployed on or to encircle dolphins, and that no dolphins were killed or seriously injured in the sets in which the tuna were caught.”

Further information on the Tuna Tracking and Verification Program and the tuna-dolphin issue can be found online. NOAA logo.