How ‘dolphin safe’ is canned tuna, really?

StarKist, Bumble Bee, and Chicken of the Sea are facing claims that they're misleading shoppers.

A frozen tuna enters a cleaning machine at the Grupo Pinsa processing plant in Mazatlán, Mexico. Tuna from Mexico is restricted from being sold in the U.S. with a dolphin safe label because some fisheries in the region continue to chase and net dolphins when catching the fish.
Photograph by Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Jennie Dusheck makes a habit of preparing for the worst. When the California writer realized a few years ago that wildfires and smoke-filled air were becoming an annual inevitability, she bought Israeli gas masks in case it became difficult to breathe. In December 2019, when many West Coasters were looking forward to heavy snow forecasts for skiing, she fretted about the threat of mudslides and wrote an article about how to survive one. With the news of a mysterious disease in China the following February and concerns about food shortages if it spread to the U.S., Dusheck hurried to the grocery store to stock up on staples—pasta, peanut butter, nuts, sardines, tuna.

She felt a little guilty about the tuna, “because there aren’t a lot of fish left in the sea,” she says. “But it was an indulgence that would keep—and I wanted something besides walnuts.”

Of course, Dusheck wasn’t the only pandemic prepper stockpiling tuna. Early on, canned tuna sales doubled. In July 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that the increased demand for tuna, compounded by pandemic-related port closures and worker quarantines, was challenging some tuna companies to keep up.

While the pandemic has been a boon to business, tuna companies have for years struggled with declining sales and perceptions about their product being tainted with toxic mercury, harmful to the environment, and passé with millennials. The newfound popularity of tuna hasn’t freed the longtime staple from controversy, however. The three largest U.S. tuna brands—StarKist, Bumble Bee, and Chicken of the Sea, which collectively account for up to 80 percent of the national market—are facing class action lawsuits claiming that they’re defrauding shoppers with marketing campaigns touting dolphin safety and a commitment to sustainability.

The suits come on the heels of a price fixing scandal involving the big three working together to sell their products at inflated costs. StarKist, acquired by Dongwon Industries in South Korea, pleaded guilty and was fined $100 million. Bumble Bee, recently purchased by the Taiwan seafood conglomerate FCF Co, Ltd., also pleaded guilty and was fined $25 million. The company’s former chief, Christopher Lischewski, who maintained his innocence, is now serving 40 months in a federal prison in Tucson, Arizona. Chicken of the Sea, owned by Bangkok seafood seller Thai Union, was granted amnesty for blowing the whistle on the others.

The dolphin-safe court battle could drag on for years, but it raises important questions for consumers aiming to buy products that are environmentally friendly and socially responsible. (Here’s what the different labels on tuna cans mean.)

“People often see a label on a can and think things are taken care of,” says Ryan Bigelow, senior manager of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which makes science-based, sustainable seafood recommendations to grocery shoppers. “The reality is there’s often still a lot more work to be done.”

Gone fishing

Scientists say there’s one inescapable certainty in any type of commercial fishing: incidental bycatch, the lackluster term for marine life—from whales and dolphins to sharks, seabirds, and endangered sea turtles—unintentionally hooked or ensnared in nets. Fishing methods associated with dolphin bycatch include gillnets, purse seine nets, fish aggregating devices, and longlines.

Each name fittingly describes how the technique works. Gillnets are made of mesh that snags fish by their gills as they swim through it. Purse seine nets encircle schooling fish, which become trapped when the net is cinched, or “pursed,” by a metal cable from the bottom. Often used in combination with purse seines, fish aggregating devices (FADs) are floating rafts attached to a sonar-equipped satellite buoy; they take advantage of the natural tendency for fish to congregate beneath such things as logs drifting in the ocean. Longlines trail up to 50 miles of fishing rope baited with thousands of hooks. 

The volume of dolphins and other marine life caught as bycatch from these fishing methods is “staggering,” says Zak Smith, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who contributed to a 2014 report titled Net Loss: The Killing of Marine Mammals in Foreign Fisheries. The report cites data estimating that 650,000 marine mammals including dolphins, whales, and seals are caught or seriously injured in fisheries every year. “Three hundred thousand of those animals are cetaceans [whales, dolphins, and porpoises],” Smith says, “and the vast majority of them are dolphins because there are a lot more dolphins than anything else.” 

The Indian Ocean and the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean—770,000 square miles of blue water and archipelagos off the coast of Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, and Columbia— are infamous for dolphin bycatch. In the Indian Ocean, scientists estimate that four million dolphins have died in the region’s poorly regulated gillnet fisheries since the 1950s. The researchers report that roughly 80,000 dolphins are now killed as bycatch annually.

In the tropics of the eastern Pacific Ocean, fishermen have long used dolphin schools as living fish finders, signaling a tuna payload in the deep. This is the only region in the world where a commercial fishery overlaps with the unique, and poorly understood phenomenon of spotted, spinner, and other species of dolphins routinely swimming with schools of yellowfin tuna.

In the old days, seamen chummed the dolphin-rich waters with baitfish, drawing tuna to the surface, where they could hook them with poles. By the late 1950s, however, bait fishermen had widely switched to purse seining, and they commonly targeted and chased the dolphins to corral their tuna catch in the center of nets that could be up to a mile long and 80 feet deep. Scientists estimate that more than six million dolphins were killed by eastern tropical Pacific tuna purse seiners in the three decades before the mid 1990s.

The tipping point came in 1987, when a 31-year-old biologist named Samuel LaBudde (pronounced “LaBuddy”) went undercover as a cook on a Panamanian tuna vessel. On a four-month voyage, he filmed hundreds of dolphins dying as they were hefted from the ocean.

"Drowned or snagged in the net, the dolphins fight a losing battle for life," LaBudde said, narrating the graphic video, broadcast on television and presented before the U.S. Congress. "Some will fall back into the sea as flippers and beaks are broken or ripped out of their bodies, only to become ensnared moments later and be pulled out once again."

Public outrage led to an amendment of the U.S.’s Marine Mammal Protection Act to better protect dolphins and one of the most successful consumer boycotts in national history. “It infected people with a sense of injustice and anger,” LaBudde says. “Thousands of school children refused to eat canned tuna.” In response to the uproar, the big three U.S. tuna companies proclaimed in 1990 that they would not purchase any tuna captured in nets along with dolphins.

Furthermore, the newly signed Dolphin Safe Consumer Information Act of 1990 made it illegal for any tuna product exported from or sold in the U.S. to claim that it’s “dolphin safe” unless it’s in compliance with a bevy of complex U.S. laws and regulations designed to protect dolphins. Demand for dolphin-safe tuna in the U.S. drove many fisheries to adopt the standards, but tuna caught in association with dolphins continues to be sold in Latin America, Asia, and some European countries.

“The U.S. dolphin safe program has been very effective,” says Sara McDonald, a senior fisheries scientist at Monterey Bay Aquarium. “Dolphin mortality in the 1980s was 130,000. In 2018, there were 819 documented deaths. If your product has a dolphin safe label, you are legally obligated not to sell tuna where dolphins were injured, killed, or set upon. It doesn’t mean dolphins aren’t interacting with the tuna fisheries; it means that tuna can’t be sold in this country.”

Accusations of fraud

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Smith says he believes that most tuna sold in the U.S. with a dolphin-safe tuna seal is legitimate, but because tuna is a global commodity with very long supply chains, there are opportunities for fraud and deception. “The U.S. laws are good if everyone is being honest,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean nothing ever gets in. There is an incredible amount of illegal wildlife moving into the country. [Law enforcement] can’t catch it all.”

The dolphin-safe tuna class action suits charge that the tuna companies are not being honest about the integrity of their supply chains. More broadly, they allege that the companies have run pervasive advertising campaigns that lead consumers to trust that the companies “never” kill dolphins. For example, the group of people suing Starkist allege that parent company Dongwon’s distant water boats often entrap dolphins, because many are purse-seine fishing vessels that use fish aggregating devices to capture tuna. (Neither purse seine nets nor FADS are banned under U.S. dolphin-safe fishing standards.)

“Either the companies should stop accepting tuna from these fishing practices or be up front with consumers that they’re not dolphin safe, even though they may be in compliance with the law,” says Stuart Davidson, one of the lead plaintiff attorneys in the lawsuits. “We want restitution for everyone in the country who paid more than they should have because the tuna was caught with these methods.”

StarKist officials, according to court documents, say it’s unrealistic for consumers to expect that the label means zero harm or injury to dolphins and other wildlife because bycatch is an inescapable reality of any fishery, no matter whether tuna is caught with purse seines or more dolphin-friendly poles—a reality that’s accepted and acknowledged under the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act.

Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea did not respond to interview requests. A StarKist spokesperson would not comment on the litigation but provided a statement about the company’s commitment to protecting dolphins. “StarKist does not purchase any tuna caught in association with dolphins,” the spokesperson said, and “condemns the use of indiscriminate fishing methods that trap dolphins, whales, and other marine life along with the intended catch of fish.”

Peeling back the labels 

As a federal court in California weighs the dolphin-safe lawsuits, sustainable seafood experts offer guidance on how to buy canned tuna that is not only dolphin safe but also environmentally friendly and socially responsible.

“The misconception is if it’s not hurting dolphins, then it must be okay,” says oceans expert and renowned environmental author Carl Safina, who spearheaded a sustainable seafood guide when he was working for the National Audubon Society in the 1990s.  “But the reality is it’s likely to be hurting some other non-target species in a big way, or simply depleting the species. The overwhelming majority of tuna populations are overfished.”

Buying sustainable seafood pushes retailers to source environmentally responsible products, which can drive improvements throughout the industry, say Monterey Bay scientists involved with the aquarium’s Seafood Watch consumer guide.

In the case of canned tuna, McDonald says it’s best to read labels for descriptions such as “pole-caught” (fishing one tuna at a time) and “troll-caught” (fished by a slow-moving boat dragging lure lines). “Anything else is less sustainable,” she says. “These fisheries have better control of what they’re catching. There’s also a higher survival rate for the bycatch that they throw back.”

The nonprofit activist group Greenpeace has worked for many years to bring to light the environmental and human rights issues associated with tuna fisheries, including dolphin mortalities, endangered sea turtle and shark bycatch, debt bondage, human trafficking, and forced labor. Taking these factors into account, Greenpeace evaluated the sourcing policies and practices of 20 canned tuna brands and published them in a Tuna Shopping Guide.

StarKist, Chicken of the Sea, and Bumble Bee were among the lowest ranked brands featured in the guide. The four top-rated tuna companies were Wild Planet and American Tuna, which tied for first place, followed by Whole Foods and Ocean Naturals. Selling only pole-caught fish, American Tuna supports local and small-scale fishing and production in the U.S. Wild Planet procures pole- and troll-caught tuna from sustainable fisheries in the U.S., Japan, New Zealand, Spain, Portugal, and the archipelago of Cape Verde off Africa’s northwestern coast.

Shoppers pay a premium—up to six dollars a can—for eco-friendly tuna brands. Wild Planet founder Bill Carvalho says the higher cost is unavoidable because there’s more labor involved with sustainable fishing. “You can’t do this for 59 cents a can,” he says. “Cheap tuna comes at an astronomically high environmental price. They’re dumping endangered species overboard.”

Safina says he tends to avoid eating tuna—with two exceptions. The first is if he catches it himself. “These fish are the most superb animals. When you kill one and turn it into food, it’s precious,” he says. “If you handle it well and use it as sashimi or put it on the grill and cook it just right, it’s just phenomenal.” Second, if it’s pole-caught. “I have a philosophy that it’s good to support the good actors,” he says. “Even if the good actors are within a bad fishery.”

Many consumers are now left with the question of what to do with all the tuna that they stockpiled—Google searches for canned tuna recipes have soared by 300 percent. Writer Jennie Dusheck has no plans to cook tuna lasagna, fish cakes, or noodle casserole. She’s enjoying her “indulgence” with lettuce, red pepper, celery, and lime juice on some good sourdough bread.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.

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