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With the growing demand for seafood across the world, commercial fisheries are going to extremes to reach quotas for popular fish such as tuna.

According to the WWF, “The U.S. alone imported 314,863 metric tons of tuna worth $1.3 billion in 2010.” As one of the most sought after fish varieties in fresh and canned form, tuna is quickly becoming a rather controversial catch. Recent reports have revealed that human trafficking and child labor runs rampant in the industry, many began to understand the negative impact of their taste for tuna.

From an ecological perspective, this incredible demand also means an enormous amount of damage for marine ecosystems.

Tuna and Dolphins

What would you say if you knew the tuna sandwich or sushi roll on your plate caused the death of not only the tuna, but many dolphins too?

Many species of tuna have become endangered over the past several years due to high demands. Recently, it was discovered that the Bluefin Tuna population has declined by 96 percent – largely because fisheries are catching fish at a faster rate than they can naturally replenish their stocks. With dwindling tuna stocks, fisheries become more desperate. In order to catch as many tuna as possible, commercial fisheries utilize aggressive methods of catching fish, such as gill nets or bottom trawl nets. Bottom trawling is the method where a large net is dragged across the sea floor, scooping up everything it passes, including nontarget animals like dolphins.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), in the Pacific Ocean, west of Mexico, large Yellowfin Tuna often swim in schools alongside several species of dolphin including the pantropical spotted, common, and spinner. Due to the cohabitation of these dolphin and tuna populations, the NOAA goes so far as to assert that a successful tuna fishery often results from the death of a large number of dolphins.

Trawl nets are designed to catch everything in their path and in some cases freeing a dolphin might also mean freeing hundreds of valuable target fish. Sadly, this is the trend across the world. Whale and Dolphin Conservation estimates that over 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die every year in fishing nets across the globe.

The Dolphin Safe Label

If you have ever purchased a can of tuna before, you may have noticed the “Dolphin Safe” label displayed on the back. These labels are used to “denote compliance with laws or policies designed to minimize dolphin fatalities during fishing for tuna destined for canning,” and are verified by NOAA Fisheries Service’s Sustainable Fisheries Division’s Tuna Tracking and Verification Program. Currently, around 98 percent of tuna cans in U.S. grocery stores bear this label.

However, even these dolphin friendly labels still do not guarantee that no dolphins were harmed during the fishing process, according to the U.S. Consumers Union.

The Dolphin Safe regulations adhere to five standards:

  1. No intentional chasing, netting or encirclement of dolphins during an entire tuna fishing trip;
  2. No use of drift gill nets to catch tuna;
  3. No accidental killing or serious injury to any dolphins during net sets;
  4. No mixing of dolphin-safe and dolphin-deadly tuna in individual boat wells (for accidental kill of dolphins), or in processing or storage facilities; and
  5. Each trip in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP) by vessels 400 gross tons and above must have an independent observer on board attesting to the compliance with points (1) through (4) above.

The program has received a lot of criticism since it first initiated in the early 1990s. Dolphin Safe fishing methods do not include the use of drift or gill nets, instead fishermen attract tuna to the surface using floating objects and net them at the surface of the water. Conversely, fishermen might track down free-swimming schools of tuna and net them on site. In both instances, bycatch for other marine animals including sharks, turtles, and manta rays is still a concern.

So if you’ve been persuaded into thinking that your “Dolphin Safe” tuna is not endangering the ocean ecosystem, it’s time to rethink. Dolphin safe label or not, dolphins are always at risk of getting killed when fishing is involved. The best thing you can do is avoid buying tuna full stop. The dolphins and other marine animals will thank you.

What’s Being Done to Help?

In order to reduce the number of dolphins, whales and porpoises getting trapped in fishing nets every year, alternative fishing gear and techniques must be implemented. Obviously, we need to move away from bottom trawling and use less destructive fishing methods instead.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), for instance, are working with partners to introduce alternative trawl nets as well as circle hooks to reduce the likelihood of turtle suffocation, which is occurring regularly with the J-shaped hooks. Leatherback turtles and loggerhead turtles are both highly endangered and these unintentional killings are leading them to extinction.

The Daily Change You Can Make to Help Protect Dolphins

The single most effective thing you can do to help all the victims of the fishing industry is to either reduce your seafood consumption or even better, eliminate it all together. You can save 225 fish a year by cutting seafood out of your diet – imagine how many other marine species you can save in association with that number!

To get started, check out these awesome fish-free recipes and join One Green Planet’s #EatForThePlanet movement!

Correction 5/27/2015: A previous version of this article stated that as many as 130,000 dolphins are still being killed to meet annual demands for tuna. This is the number of dolphins killed as of 1986 and is no longer the current rate. 

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