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dolphin safe
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How meaningful is the label? Is the label verified? Is the meaning of the label consistent? Are the label standards publicly available? Is information about the organization publicly available? Is the organization free from conflict of interest? Was the label developed with broad public and industry input?
Somewhat Yes1 No Yes Yes Yes2 Yes
1. The dolphin safe label is a partially certified claim since the NMFS only verifies tuna caught from a specific region and not all tuna that is labeled dolphin safe.
2. Since the manufacturer can make the decision about labeling tuna when it is caught outside the verified region for dolphin safe, there can be conflict of interest.
General Claims

  • FISH
    Federal law regulates the use of "dolphin safe" and similar language that suggests dolphin protection. The Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act prohibits manufacturers from labeling tuna as "dolphin safe" if it was caught in a manner that causes death or serious injury to dolphins through deliberate targeting or encirclemant of dolphins. The National Marine Fisheries Service, a government agency, estimates that the dolphin mortality rate in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (the zone defined as relevant to dolphin safe) has been under 2000 per year since 1998 compared to 133,000 in 1986.

    Some, but not all tuna labeled as "dolphin safe" is verified as meeting the standard. Dolphin safe labeled tuna caught with purse sein nets in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP), the primary ocean region where the phenomenon of tuna swimming with dolphins is known to exist, must be verified by an independent observer from the National Marine Fisheries Service, who was aboard the ship that caught the tuna and who ensures that no dolphins were deliberately encircled or "set" upon. Tuna caught in this region using other methods, or in most other waters outside the ETP does not require independent onboard verification but can still be labeled as "dolphin safe." The Earth Island Institute, a non-profit marine conservation organization, has representatives who make surprise visits to canneries and docks in order to inspect captains' logs and other paperwork that indicate whether or not dolphin were protected according to the standard. They also have onboard observers in two regions. However, companies are not required to grant access to their representatives. In this way, Earth Island Institute acts as an unofficial watchdog. They bring evidence of violations to the attention of federal agencies for legal enforcement, and organize consumer boycotts of brands that don't comply with the standard.
    "Dolphin safe" is a general claim relating to sustainable fishing practices. There is no single organization that licenses the use of this claim and related logos; however the federal government regulates the use of this term and recently developed a logo that it encourages, but doesn't require companies to use. Most companies have developed their own logo.

    The federal standard does require certification for some, but not all, dolphin safe labeled tuna. Thus, there is a greater level of oversight on the validity of this claim than is common for other general claims. However, there remains no universal system in place to ensure that no dolphins were harmed or killed in the process of fishing for all tuna labeled as dolphin safe.

    The extent to which the federal definition of "dolphin safe" fully protects dolphins is the focus of considerable controversy. Environmental organizations and marine mammal experts are split on the issue. The Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act prohibits the encircling of dolphins in order to label the tuna catch as dolphin-safe. However, encirclement of other items such as logs is still allowed. Some argue that allowing encirclement with purse sein nets and other fishing techniques can still catch dolphins inadvertently which can therefore still harm dolphins. They further claim that these techniques can have serious adverse impacts on other marine species and can threaten the future of tuna populations as a whole because they catch smaller, younger fish before they have spawned.

    Regardless of the debate, use of the dolphin safe label is not licensed by any organization and independent verification that standards are met is not universally in place for all dolphin safe tuna marketed in the US. Therefore, Consumers Union considers the dolphin safe label to be a partially-certified general claim.
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