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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal Mary Beth West, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oceans
Prepared statement to House Committee on Resources, Committee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans
Washington, DC, April 9, 1997
Released by the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs

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Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for this opportunity to appear before the Committee to discuss why the Administration so strongly supports H.R. 408 and its Senate counterpart, S. 39.

At the outset, I would like to express special appreciation for those in the Congress who have come forward to support the Panama Declaration. And I would like to thank the non-governmental organizations -- the Center for Marine Conservation, the World Wildlife Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, Greenpeace, and the Environmental Defense Fund -- for their vision and courage in helping to forge the Panama Declaration.

The legislation we support implements an international commitment -- the Panama Declaration -- which will protect dolphins in the tuna fishery of the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean and which will also reduce the bycatch of other species in that fishery. The Panama Declaration's program is a strong one, one of the most forward-looking marine conservation regimes in the world today. But we will lose it unless we pass this legislation.

Today, I will try to keep things brief and simple. The Administration supports this legislation because it is good for dolphins, good for the environment as a whole and good for the U.S. fishing industry. Failure to pass this legislation would be bad for all three.

First, I will address why this legislation is good for dolphins.

For reasons no one fully understands, dolphins and yellowfin tuna swim together in the waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean. This area of the sea is completely outside of U.S. jurisdiction. Fishermen have long realized that, by setting a purse seine net around dolphins in that region, they can catch large yellowfin tuna effectively and efficiently. As recently as the 1980's, this method of fishing resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of dolphins each year.

Thanks in part to U.S. leadership and in part to international cooperation, the protection of dolphins in that fishery has improved dramatically. In 1996, as a result of the strict fishing measures used by the countries participating in the International Dolphin Conservation Program (IDCP) of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), there were fewer than 3,000 dolphin mortalities in the tuna fishery of the eastern tropical Pacific, from a population of nearly 10 million (or only about three one hundredths of one percent). Mr. Chairman, this reduction is nothing short of a phenomenal environmental success story, achieved through considerable effort by governments, fisheries managers, fishermen, and dedicated environmental groups.

The continuation of this remarkable environmental success depends on passage of H.R. 408 and its Senate counterpart, S. 39.

As I said, this fishery takes place entirely outside U.S. waters and involves almost exclusively vessels that fly the flags of other nations. Thus, the United States has no direct control over the fishing methods used or the numbers of dolphins killed.

Nonetheless, through the La Jolla Agreement of 1992, which first established the IDCP, the other nations involved agreed to a strong, comprehensive dolphin protection program, which limits dolphin mortality to very low levels. The La Jolla Agreement and the IDCP contain innovative features that are extremely forward-looking in international fisheries management, and which ensure the transparency of the program, its effectiveness and its enforceability.

In brief, the La Jolla Agreement consists of five key components.

First, the La Jolla Agreement sets a strict overall annual dolphin mortality limit for the international fleet and allocates portions of that overall limit on an annual basis to vessels that meet certain criteria, including 100 percent observer coverage, possession of the equipment required for releasing captured dolphins unharmed, commitment to adhere to IATTC standards regarding fishing practices, training of key crew members in dolphin safety techniques, and the payment of funds to support the IDCP observer program. Only these vessels are permitted to fish for tunas associated with dolphins and only until they reach their individual dolphin mortality limits (DMLs). These individual vessel quotas are an enormously strong incentive for vessel captains to minimize dolphin mortality, particularly in view of the requirement that every vessel carry an observer. This system is the key to the dramatic reduction in dolphin mortality.

Second, the Agreement requires an observer on every tuna fishing vessel. Since January 1, 1993, every trip made in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean by a vessel greater than 400 short tons carrying capacity must be accompanied by an internationally accredited observer. The information collected by these observers is essential for scientific research and for ensuring compliance with the Agreement. Some of these observers are from accredited national programs; the majority are international observers employed by the IATTC.

Third, the Agreement established an International Review Panel. This Panel meets approximately three times annually and is charged with reviewing and reporting on the compliance of the international fleet with the La Jolla Agreement. The Panel, which is made up of representatives of governments, the fishing industry, and non-governmental environmental organizations, reviews issues arising in the implementation of the IDCP and verifies the performance of individual vessels. The data collected by observers are reviewed and, when an infraction of the standards established under the Agreement is identified, the flag State is notified and requested to report to the Panel on the enforcement action taken.

Fourth, the La Jolla Agreement calls for a comprehensive research program. The research is designed to pursue two goals: to improve current purse-seine technology to reduce dolphin mortality to a minimum, and to develop alternative methods for capturing large yellowfin tuna in a manner that does not involve setting on dolphins.

Fifth, the Agreement created a Scientific Advisory Board. The Board consists of government agencies, environmental groups, the fishing industry, and the international scientific community. It assists the Director of the IATTC in efforts to coordinate, facilitate, and guide research directed towards achieving the objectives of the program.

Together these five components create what is perhaps the strongest cooperative international marine resource conservation program in the world.

In 1995, the United States and the other nations involved in the fishery signed the Panama Declaration, an agreement to strengthen and make legally binding the IDCP-- and to reduce dolphin deaths even further -- but only if the United States opens its market to tuna caught in accordance with the program. We need new legislation to accomplish this.

The Panama Declaration, once implemented, will enhance the protection of dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific in a number of significant ways. The Declaration lowers the annual overall limit on dolphin mortalities established in the La Jolla Agreement. Within that annual limit, the Declaration creates new per-stock mortality limits, to better protect all dolphin populations. Perhaps most importantly, the Panama Declaration sets as an agreed goal the elimination of all dolphin mortality in this fishery and makes the entire international dolphin protection program legally binding.

If we pass the legislation necessary to secure these benefits of the Panama Declaration, we will see fewer dolphin deaths and stricter scrutiny of this essentially "foreign" fishery. Failure to pass this legislation would spell the demise of the international program, inevitably leading to an increase in dolphin mortalities.

The second reason we support this legislation is that it is good for the environment as a whole.

The Panama Declaration, and this legislation to implement it, would give us a well-managed tuna fishery in the eastern Pacific, with healthy fish stocks, strict monitoring and enforcement, very limited dolphin mortality and unusually low bycatch of other non-target species. The IATTC's International Dolphin Conservation Program, as strengthened by the Panama Declaration, embodies the spirit and practice of international cooperation envisioned by the UN Agreement for the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks. As you know, the United States has signed and ratified this historic agreement, and we are urging other nations to do so as well.

We recognize that some people believe there should be no setting of purse seine nets around dolphins. However, this would increase the use of other fishing techniques, such as setting the nets around logs or schools of fish. Unfortunately, these other fishing techniques, if used widely, are much worse for the environment overall, because they yield significantly higher bycatch of other species, including sharks, billfish and endangered sea turtles. They also result in the harvest of small, immature tuna. This bycatch issue is a very serious one, and much hard scientific analysis has gone into evaluating it, based on logbook records and catch information verified by international observers and by a peer review of independent scientists. Recent data from 1995 confirms the serious levels of bycatch that occur in tuna fishing by encircling logs or in-shore schools of small tuna. Over time, this would threaten the tuna and other stocks in this region. In contrast, allowing setting on dolphins under strictly monitored conditions will cause much less harm to the ecosystem as a whole, and supports a policy of conserving and protecting all species of marine life in the region.

Let me say a word about the "dolphin-safe" label, which is at issue here. For purposes relevant to this debate, current U.S. law says that tuna is dolphin-safe only if a purse seine net has not intentionally been set around dolphins during an entire fishing trip. The idea behind this definition was to force foreign vessels to stop setting nets around dolphins.

However, that has not worked. The tuna embargoes have been in place for seven years, but the number of sets around dolphins by foreign vessels has not appreciably changed. Moreover, U.S. law alone cannot end the encirclement of dolphins in a fishery that is conducted by foreign fleets on the high seas and in the exclusive economic zones of other nations. The U.S. market for canned tuna is also declining as a share of the world market, giving us less leverage over foreign fishing practices. The only way zero mortality will be achieved, or a new way found to fish for tuna that is both economically and environmentally sound and that does not involve encirclement, is through international cooperation.

Moreover, the Panama Declaration, and the legislation we support, would put the dolphin-safe label on a more rational footing -- tuna would be dolphin-safe only if no dolphins died in the harvesting process. This is a sensible approach for the environment, and for the marketplace.

The third reason we support this legislation is that it is good for the U.S. fishing industry.

U.S. purse seine vessels once dominated the eastern Pacific tuna fishery. That is no longer the case. Today, only about six U.S. purse seiners operate in that region. Current U.S. law, which has kept considerable amounts of foreign tuna out of the U.S. market, has also caused the U.S. purse seiners to move elsewhere, mostly to the western Pacific, where tuna and dolphins do not interact.

The Panama Declaration, with this implementing legislation, would allow U.S. purse seiners to return to the eastern Pacific on an equal footing with foreign vessels. While we cannot predict with certainty how many U.S. vessels would take advantage of this opportunity, enactment of this legislation would represent an important point of principle: U.S. fishermen should have equal opportunity.

I would now like to address some of the criticisms that have been leveled at the Panama Declaration, and the legislation to implement it, by certain groups who stand in opposition.

First, the opponents of H.R. 408 have contended that the Panama Declaration does not cap dolphin mortalities. On the contrary, the Panama Declaration sets an overall mortality limit of 5,000 dolphins annually. Mortalities cannot increase above this limit. Moreover, as noted above, the Panama Declaration, for the first time, also sets particular caps on individual stocks of dolphins, to ensure protection for all species. This means that in any given year, the overall mortality will likely be well below 5,000, as it is currently, due to the individual species caps. Moreover, as noted earlier, the Panama Declaration calls for further reductions in dolphin mortality, with the goal of eliminating mortality altogether in this fishery.

Second, critics have argued that the dolphin mortality limits are not enforceable. As I noted, Mr. Chairman, for several years there has been an internationally accredited observer aboard every vessel in this fishery, whose job it is to monitor and report each and every dolphin mortality. As a result, we know far more about dolphins and dolphin mortality in this fishery, which is conducted outside our fishing zone, than we do about many fisheries conducted within U.S. waters. We will know if the dolphin mortality limits are exceeded. And if foreign nations do not comply, H.R. 408 requires the reimposition of our tuna embargo. Thus, we will continue to use our market to encourage cooperation and good performance.

Third, it has been argued that we cannot define "dolphin-safe" tuna as tuna caught with no dolphin mortalities, because tuna cannot be separated and tracked on board vessels or at canneries. This too is not the case. Tuna can be separated and tracked both on board the vessel and at the cannery, and it can be done with only one observer aboard each vessel. A comprehensive and detailed analysis of this matter prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service shows that tuna can be tracked. Indeed, our present law requires tuna tracking, and the Panama Declaration requires adjustments to strengthen the tracking process.

Fourth, some environmentalists claim that stress related to chase and encirclement causes dolphins to die after their release from the nets or severely impedes their potential to reproduce. Presently, there is no solid scientific evidence to support or rebut this contention; and the Panama Declaration will require investigation into the question. In any event, most scientists agree that, at the current level of mortality, dolphin populations should continue to grow.

Finally, opponents argue that since several countries whose vessels now fish in the Eastern Pacific are not members of the IATTC, the Panama Declaration does not adequately address the problem. We agree that all such countries should join that organization. Indeed, that is one of the reasons we support the Panama Declaration and H.R. 408, which require that, for another country to sell its tuna in the U.S. market, it must join the IATTC and participate in the program to conserve dolphins. For those countries now outside the IATTC, we would grant market access only if they took all steps necessary under the IATTC treaty to join the organization.

Mr. Chairman, as I stated earlier, one of the strengths of the IDCP and the Panama Declaration is in its enforcement mechanisms, which are better than any other international marine resource program operating today. As noted earlier, this innovative approach provides for direct and active participation by industry and NGOs in the implementation of the program. Moreover, if H.R. 408 is passed, we will be in a strong position to ensure that countries effectively enforce the program's requirements.

Enforcement of a strong dolphin protection program highlights the difference between those who support the Panama Declaration and those who oppose it. Enforcement is always an issue. But what is going to happen if we do not support the Panama Declaration? We believe the IATTC will not survive. If that occurs, the tuna fishery in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean would suffer from lax compliance, lax enforcement and minimal penalties. Our law now is based on the days when a U.S. fleet dominated the fishery and has no positive incentives for good fishing behavior, for strong enforcement of the rules, or for strong penalties for their violation that are relevant to others in the fishery. The Panama Declaration and H.R. 408 will, however, strengthen the standards, provide an incentive for adhering to them, and provide the United States with leverage to ensure that the standards are observed.

The fact is, Mr. Chairman, that after four years of adhering to the MMPA's current stringent dolphin protection program and seeing no prospect of relief in terms of access to the U.S. market, the foreign fleets and governments do not have a compelling incentive to continue pursuing an effective compliance and penalty regime, and the United States has little leverage. Because of our failure to implement the Panama Declaration to date, some of the countries involved are reevaluating their participation in the program. Mexico, which had previously led the effort to develop the IDCP, has now suspended its active participation in the administrative functions of the program, while still maintaining adherence to the program's strict dolphin conservation measures. Its absence has already started to have an impact on the effectiveness of the program. The future of the IATTC and the dolphin protection program is very much in jeopardy. But we can save the program and protect dolphins aggressively in the future by enacting H.R. 408.

In conclusion, I want to emphasize that we have achieved real progress - an excellent international conservation program. With the Panama Declaration, we have the promise of an even better program. This program will be good for dolphins, good for the environment as a whole and good for the U.S. fishing industry. We hope that you will agree that implementation of this strong program through enactment of H.R. 408 and its companion bill in the Senate should be an early goal for us all.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I would be pleased to try to answer any questions you or the other members of the Committee might have.

[end of document]

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