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Dolphin-Safe Standard Revised for Tuna Fishers

Yesterday Congress lifted the embargo on fishermen who temporarily snag, but don't kill, dolphins

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Is it possible that your grade-schooler's lunchbox has anything to do with a major trade and environmental issue? Yes, if the menu regularly includes tuna fish sandwiches along with the juice box and carrot sticks.

In recent years, kids have been inspecting household grocery bags to make sure that cans of tuna are labeled "dolphin safe," meaning none of the intelligent and marine mammals they love were hauled up in fishing nets. Many chastened parents have been trained by their offspring to buy accordingly.

Now, Congress is moving to change United States policy on an issue that seems clear-cut but in fact is full of ecological and political complexities.

The environmental sensitivities of Americans, who eat more tuna than people in any other country do, have gotten in the way of international trade agreements. Mexico has complained that the 1992 US embargo on tuna not deemed "dolphin safe" violates the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade by imposing a single country's law. With the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other trade measures, such disagreements could become commonplace.

In an attempt to ease diplomatic tensions, the Senate (with the Clinton administration's blessing) Wednesday approved a compromise to lift the embargo while keeping the "dolphin safe" designation. A similar bill passed by the House is expected to be adjusted to match the Senate's.

This allows the temporary capture of some dolphins in tuna nets as long as the dolphins are not killed or seriously injured. Independent observers aboard tuna boats are to see that dolphins are not harmed, and a three-year scientific study will track any changes in dolphin populations.

"It's an agreement that really is a strong one," says Barbara Dudley, senior adviser to Greenpeace. The World Wildlife Fund, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Center for Marine Conservation also are comfortable with the policy change.

In an unusual and contentious split with their ideological brethren, however, other environmental and animal-rights groups are fighting the change, among them the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Cousteau Society.

"The worst thing about the bill is that it legitimizes a disastrous method of fishing," says Christopher Croft, a biologist who spent four years as an observer aboard Pacific tuna fishing boats for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

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