Five Myths About Dolphin Safe Tuna

Here are five common myths we hear all the time about Dolphin Safe tuna. Don’t be fooled!

Many of these myths were started by the Mexican tuna industry and backed by the Mexican government and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC). The IATTC claims to be a science-based treaty organization and regulator of the tuna industry, but they are completely under the control of the Mexican government and tuna industry. The Mexican industry and its government backers support chasing and netting dolphins in order to catch tuna, drowning and killing thousands of dolphins annually.

The scientific evidence provided by marine biologists is clear that verified Dolphin Safe tuna is the best kind of canned tuna to buy for sustainability and protection of dolphins and other marine life. It is also clear that the practice of setting nets on dolphins results in significant adverse impacts on dolphin populations.

Myth #1. The Dolphin Safe Label Is Meaningless

This is an extreme view, yet we hear it all the time. Mostly from people who never contacted us for comment.

Prior to 1990, it’s estimated that more than 7 million dolphins were killed in tuna purse seine nets before the advent of the Dolphin Safe tuna programs. In the late 1980’s, as many as 80,000 to 100,000 dolphins were dying in tuna nets every year. IMMP successfully pushed for new federal regulations and established our Dolphin Safe program in 1990. Since that time, reported dolphin deaths have declined to less than 2,000 per year, virtually all of which die in Mexican, Venezuelan and Colombian vessels that continue to chase, harass, net and kill dolphins.

The international standards for Dolphin Safe tuna require that the tuna vessel not chase, harass or deploy any tuna nets around pods of dolphins in order to catch tuna during an entire fishing trip, nor kill or seriously injure any dolphins during fishing operations. The standards further require that Dolphin Safe and non-Dolphin Safe tuna cannot be mixed onboard the vessel.

Currently, more than 800 tuna companies from around the world have signed policies with the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) of Earth Island Institute pledging to maintain these international standards and to participate in our independent monitoring of their fishing activities. In the United States, Congress has set these standards in law, and stipulates that tuna that does not conform with these standards while using a Dolphin Safe label is illegal and cannot be sold in the U.S.

Most “light meat” canned tuna on the market is from skipjack tuna, a species that spawns year-round, matures within 1 year, rapidly replacing depleted population numbers, has higher populations and is less susceptible to depletion. Fishermen complying with international Dolphin Safe standards set nets on schools of tuna unaccompanied by dolphins and on floating objects that have no dolphins present. Or they use pole and line or trolling to catch the tuna, which has no impact on dolphins.

For listings of companies that are part of the IMMP Dolphin Safe Monitoring Program, go to our webpage.

In short, Dolphin Safe means the tuna was caught without harm to dolphins.

Tuna caught by setting of nets on dolphins by the tuna fleets of Mexico and several other countries with claims that such was “caught in accord with the IATTC standards” is NOT Dolphin Safe, and injures and kills thousands of dolphins every year.

Myth #2. There Are No Government Observers On Board Tuna Vessels

Another myth. By international agreement, there are observers on 100% of the tuna purse seine vessels in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean. In the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, there is close to 100% observer coverage on tuna purse seine vessels. These two areas are where most of the canned tuna comes from that is sold in the United States. In the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans, there are fewer observers, but the purse seine tuna fleet does carry government observers.

IMMP also conducts onboard monitoring in particular areas where we are concerned about possible interactions with dolphins. Additionally we check vessels, further inspect tuna canneries, frozen storage facilities and transfers of tuna, as well as inspecting paperwork such as tuna transactions and trade and Captains’ and Observers’ statements.

Myth #3. Dolphin Safe Tuna Can’t be Verified

More mythology! There are three layers of verification of the Dolphin Safe status of tuna. Two have already been mentioned: First, onboard government observers prepare reports about tuna catches, with special attention to bycatch of species like dolphins, sharks, and sea turtles. Second, IMMP staff checks tuna vessels, canneries and storage facilities, as well as follow tuna supply information supplied by our cooperating companies.

For canned tuna in the United States, there is a third layer of verification through the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which requires submission of fishing records regarding Dolphin Safe tuna fishing practices and checks tuna supplies closely if there is a question as to whether the tuna was truly caught without harm to dolphins. It is against US federal law to label a can of tuna as Dolphin Safe if it was caught by setting nets on dolphins or if a dolphin were killed or seriously injured during fishing for that tuna.

IMMP works with NMFS enforcement officers in cases where falsely labeled tuna enters the US markets. IMMP also contacts markets that sell dolphin-deadly tuna in the US, urging those markets to stop selling such tuna. We have found that most stores comply with our request.

Myth #4. Fishing Dolphin Safe Kills Sea Turtles

Another myth. The use of purse seine vessels to catch tuna will very occasionally catch a sea turtle, but in virtually all cases, the sea turtle is still alive. IMMP first proposed that tuna vessels be required to release these sea turtles alive in 1995. This IMMP proposed requirement became US law in 1997 and has been subsequently adopted by several of the Commissions that manage tuna fishing around the world. IMMP further requires live release of sea turtles as part of our Dolphin Safe policy.

Sea turtles are often caught and drowned, however, in the longline fishing method, in which large numbers of baited hooks are towed behind vessels for hours to catch sharks, tuna, billfish and other fish. However, this tuna is almost exclusively for fresh or fresh/frozen fish markets and restaurants, and does not carry a Dolphin Safe label. There are ways to mitigate such fishing impacts, through the use, for example, of “circle hooks” that avoid hooking sea turtles.

Myth #5. Fishing Dolphin Safe Kills Sharks

While purse seine tuna vessels do occasionally catch sharks during fishing, currently, there are greater threats to sharks, such as deliberate targeting of sharks for shark finning and the use of gill nets and longlines, but tuna purse seiners can do more to reduce impacts on sharks.

In 1995, IMMP proposed that tuna purse seiners that catch live sharks return them to the ocean. IMMP further bans shark finning onboard our cooperating tuna companies vessels. Some of the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations, like the Western and Central Pacific Tuna Commission, have taken steps to address shark finning on board tuna vessels, prohibiting, for example, removal of fins from any sharks caught in the nets. The International Sustainable Seafood Foundation (ISSF) has been conducting workshops with tuna fishermen to show them how to catch tuna while reducing the bycatch of nontarget species like sharks.


The verified Dolphin Safe tuna label is the only label that ensures that no dolphins were harmed in the catching of tuna.

IMMP continues to work with tuna companies around the world to encourage sustainable fishing practices, while urging Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela to end all chasing, netting, and killing of dolphins and join the 95% of the worldwide canned tuna industry that has fully implemented Dolphin Safe fishing methods.

For more information, go to our Dolphin Safe webpage.

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