Dolphins kill San Diego's tuna industry

Flipper victorious

A catch is hauled aboard a San Diego tuna seiner. Many of the older generation think that the dolphin activists “ruined a beautiful industry."
  • A catch is hauled aboard a San Diego tuna seiner. Many of the older generation think that the dolphin activists “ruined a beautiful industry."
  • Image by Dave Bratten

In 1960 San Diego was the most active tuna port in the world. The fleet consisted of about 135 boats. At any given time, 30 or 40 were tied up at the Embarcadero, in port between trips to the tropical grounds, to places as distant as the Galapagos Islands. There was the familiar sight of cotton bait nets drying after being cured or of the new, large nylon nets just coming into use. And nearby were the canneries that employed hundreds of people. And the steamy, billowing smell of fish processing.

The tuna industry is still based in San Diego, because most of the boats are owned by San Diego families — the Zolezzis, the Castagnolas, the DaRosas, the Virissimos, the DeSilvas, the Silvas,

The tuna industry is still based in San Diego, because most of the boats are owned by San Diego families — the Zolezzis, the Castagnolas, the DaRosas, the Virissimos, the DeSilvas, the Silvas,

Now the canneries are gone. The tuna fleet, for the most part, consists of 46 boats fishing 4000 miles away in the western Pacific. Many of these super-seiners use helicopters for spotting schools and can carry 1500 tons of fish in their refrigerated holds. They cast nets big as a city block and deep as a ten-story building; together they harvest 200,000 tons of skipjack tuna a year and provide the bulk of the canned tuna in stores across the country.

Fisherman works to free dolphins from the tuna nets. If a purse seiner caught a mixed school of yellowfin tuna and dolphins and then let all the dolphins free, the load could be called dolphin-safe.

Fisherman works to free dolphins from the tuna nets. If a purse seiner caught a mixed school of yellowfin tuna and dolphins and then let all the dolphins free, the load could be called dolphin-safe.

But even though the tuna fleet has moved far away and works by international treaty in foreign waters, it's still based in San Diego, because most of the boats are owned by San Diego families — the Zolezzis, the Castagnolas, the DaRosas, the Virissimos, the DeSilvas, the Silvas, and others. Many have been in the tuna fishery for generations and are the descendants of fishermen who worked in the earliest days of the commercial tuna fishery back in the 1910s and 1920s, who have seen it go from the days of bait fishing to today's dolphin-safe markets.

Super-seiners cast nets big as a city block and deep as a ten-story building.

Super-seiners cast nets big as a city block and deep as a ten-story building.

The tuna fishery of the 1990s has many sources. One is the inland West Coast salmon fishery of the last century, first industrialized by Yankee salmon canners from Maine. After the turn of the century, when those canneries moved from the rivers of Oregon, Washington, and Northern California to the seacoast to process salmon from the offshore troll fishery, they soon began processing sardines as well. The West Coast sardine fishery became the largest in the world, with a yearly production greater than all California fisheries combined. California chickens fed on low-cost sardine fishmeal could lay 127 eggs a year rather than 118 and could also compete in the market with Midwestern broilers. In 1917 California boats caught 105 million pounds of sardines. In 1937 they delivered 726,000 tons to 52 canneries, and in 1945 Monterey took in 9000 tons in one day alone. But by late 1945, there were fewer sardines to be found, and the fishery collapsed entirely a few years later.

The ports of Long Beach and San Pedro were home to a fleet of purse-seine boats, which used nets strung in a circle that closed at the bottom like a drawstring purse to surround the schools of fish.

The ports of Long Beach and San Pedro were home to a fleet of purse-seine boats, which used nets strung in a circle that closed at the bottom like a drawstring purse to surround the schools of fish.

The first tuna fishermen were Portuguese whalers who had jumped Yankee whaling ships during gold rush times and then settled along the West Coast, forming communities in Crescent City, Monterey, and San Diego. They continued to whale from shore, rowing out to intercept migrating animals, towing them back in to strip their blubber and reduce it to oil. They also trolled for alba-core tuna and sold the cured fish to other Portuguese and to the Italians and Chinese. In San Diego, after Chinese fishermen were legislated out of business in the 1880s, Portuguese fishermen took over their abalone camps on Point Loma and their market fisheries, the one-day trips that yielded a catch destined for small retail fish stores.

In 1903, when there was a brief shortage of sardines off San Pedro, A.J. Halfhill, a grocer and canner, turned to albacore. They were abundant in Southern California then, due to a string of cool summers that had started in 1890, and they were available through the troll fishery. People thought Halfhill would never make a go of canned albacore because the flavor was too strong, but he came up with a method of steam baking that made the product much more palatable. Halfhill took his albacore to the Pomona Fair and later made a promotional tour of the U.S. by automobile. To convince housewives to add tuna to their families’ diets, the industry promoted the versatile fish as “the chicken of the sea.” The market was his alone until 1915, when the canner Gilbert Van Camp turned to tuna. During World War I, the market boomed, with increased need for low-cost protein sources. Tuna was an ideal source, and by 1920 canners in California could deliver a case of tuna to New York for less than a dollar.

By that time, Japanese fishermen had begun to dominate the San Diego fishery. It began in 1908, when fisheries professor Kondo Masaharu came to California on a world tour seeking fishing prospects. He was particularly interested in the Mexican abalone fishery abandoned by the Chinese and returned in 1912 with Japanese boats and crews to set up operations in Turtle Bay in Baja California Sur. Masaharu shipped dried abalone to China, and he watched the tuna markets develop. In 1918 he returned to Japan to recruit tuna fishermen, and in 1920, 70 men sailed across the Pacific on the schooner Toni Maru, singing village songs and eating sashimi made from dolphins that followed the ship. After 35 days they touched land at Santa Barbara and then sailed on to Ensenada. By 1923, according to government figures, the Japanese made up 50 percent of the tuna-fishing crews, and their boats accounted for 80 percent of the total catch.

It was the Japanese who introduced the technique of live-bait fishing, called “chumming.” Out at sea, a lookout would spot a school of fish, often by first sighting the dolphins that traveled with them. The boat would circle the school, and then a skilled crewman would throw live fish into the water, usually sardines or anchovies kept in wells at the stern. The chum triggered a feeding response in the tuna. Then, using strong bamboo poles, feathered lures resembling squid, and barbless hooks, they tossed the fish aboard in a frenzy of their own. When catching mature yellowfin tuna, which could weigh several hundred pounds, the fishermen used multiple poles and lines— two or three connected by an intricate swivel-hook-and-wire assembly to a single lure. Live-bait fishing was more productive than trolling with baited lines and was the basis for the golden age of the San Diego tuna fishery, from the 1920s into the late 1950s.

In 1924 Kondo Masaharu and his associates brought the first refrigerated ships to San Diego and helped build the canneries, develop processing methods, and improve fishing techniques. The Japanese continued to play a central role in the San Diego tuna fishery until World War II, when the government took over their boats for coastal patrol vessels. When the Japanese returned from the internment camps, the boats were useless for fishing, and they had been displaced in the industry.

In 1926 the bait boat Atlantic, the first tuna boat over 100 tons’ capacity and first with a diesel engine, made its maiden trip south from San Diego. The captain was M.O. Medina, son of a Portuguese whaler and a member of a family that had run fishing businesses in San Diego for a decade. By 1928 there were 138 commercial bait boats in San Diego.

The ports of Long Beach and San Pedro were home to a fleet of purse-seine boats, which used nets strung in a circle that closed at the bottom like a drawstring purse to surround the schools of fish. These boats had arrived from Yugoslavia and the Dalmatian coast. Purse seiners tried fishing for albacore, but because of the fishes’ preference for low temperatures, below 54 degrees, the albacore swam down through the warm-water layer, into the colder water, and out the bottom of the nets. Instead of albacore, the seiners caught bluefin tuna on their eastern migration from the western Pacific.

Long Beach, then, was the purse-seine port, and San Diego was the bait-boat port. Bait-boat-fishermen ranged farther down the coast and into tropical waters to catch yellowfin tuna and skipjack. Their trips were marathons, what with the long cruises to the fishing grounds, and the hunts for live bait, the days or weeks of poling, the long trips back to port, and sometimes the long waits at the canneries. For many years, the canneries would let the boats pile up in the harbor, sometimes for weeks, until the fish were close to spoiling, and then offer a low price that couldn’t be refused. In response, the fishermen eventually organized and sometimes refused to go out to fish. Harold Medina remembers once waiting a year in port between trips. Eventually, in the 1950s, boat owners and canneries began negotiating prices for the catch before the boats left port.

Harold Medina, the nephew of M.O. Medina, took his first trip in 1936 when he was 8, on his father’s boat. In 1946, at 18, he became a full-time fisherman. Harold was in the first crew to go to the Galapagos Islands, 2500 miles away, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. On those trips, if everything went well, they returned in 60 days. But sometimes it took seven or eight weeks to catch the bait, and then they still had to find the tuna. As Medina recalls, it was exciting to fish at the Galapagos, though, because they anchored close to the beach, almost against the rocks, while most other trips left them constantly in open water. Later Medina went to Chile, a 4000-mile, 23-day trip. After bait-hunting and poling, it was another 23 days back (“Going 24 hours a day. All for 270 tons of fish”). During a career that lasted 40 years, Medina figures he spent about 25 years at sea. Even today he continues to be involved in net design and as a consultant for fisheries management.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, fishermen were prohibited from going south of 10 degrees north latitude, which cut off the eastern Pacific tuna fishery south of Costa Rica. Many California boats were conscripted — and many more volunteered — to go to the western Pacific to catch fish to feed American troops. As a result, there was a lot of prospecting for tuna, and it marked the beginning of a westward expansion that would culminate in the 1990s.

Spurred by the needs of the war, the tuna fishery thrived, and eventually California fishermen had the market to themselves. But in 1951 the Japanese dumped 1.1 million cases of tuna on the U.S. market, and American canneries began to fail. Then in 1947, Harry Truman declared a unilateral fishing-protection zone off the coast of California. Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama responded with protection zones of their own, and then Chile, Peru, and Ecuador set 200-mile protection zones. In 1949 a treaty between the U.S. and Costa Rica established the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, IATTC, headquartered in La Jolla, for research and cooperative management of tuna resources in the eastern tropical Pacific (ETP), a 10 million-square-mile triangle from California to Chile to Hawaii. Nevertheless, in 1954, 20 California boats were seized in protected Latin American waters.

San Diego’s bait boats were particularly vulnerable to seizure because they often had to work close to shore to get bait. At that time the federal Bureau of Commercial Fisheries was promoting purse seining. There was no bait involved in purse seining and less of a need to go in protected waters. Previously, purse seining for yellowfin tuna had been difficult, because the dolphins that traveled with yellowfin tore up the cotton nets with their teeth. But new nets made of nylon had been developed, and with a new hydraulic mechanism called a power block, huge nets could be handled quickly. With nylon nets and the power block, it was possible to take 50 tons of fish in a single haul. With that kind of production, U.S. fishermen could compete with the newly developed Japanese long-liners that had ranged out through the world in the mid-1950s. Long-liners put out some 50 miles of buoyed line with lures every 50 feet or so. The line would be gradually played out, then the boat would return to the beginning of the line and winch it back aboard with the catch, which could include many varieties of fish.

Lou Brito was the first San Diego fisherman to try a purse seiner, converting his bait boat in 1958. After that, change came quickly. By 1962 the San Diego bait-boat fleet had converted to purse seining. Harold Medina was one of the last to make the change. He’d been very successful at bait-and-pole fishing, and his father, who owned the boat, wanted him to stick with it. But on a trip down the coast, after doing some poling off Acapulco, Medina saw Lou Brito haul in 50 tons offish. Brito filled his hold and then headed back to San Diego while Medina still had to sail to the Galapagos and back to complete his trip. Medina decided then it was time to become a purse seiner. Back in San Diego he told his father that unless they converted, he’d be getting on another boat.

New and bigger boats were built. Bait boats with 200-ton capacities were replaced by boats with 400 tons. Seiners of500 tons led to seiners of800 tons, 1000 tons to 1500. Eventually the San Diego fleet increased to 160 purse seiners.

From the beginning, purse seiners had problems with dolphins getting caught in the nets and drowning. Mature yellowfin tuna travel with dolphins, in a beneficial relationship not fully understood. Fishermen had always used schools of dolphins to locate yellowfin, but in bait fishing they didn’t catch them. In purse seining, the fishermen enclosed both the yellowfin and the dolphins in the net. In the early years of the fishery, by some estimates, purse-seine tuna fishermen killed more than 100,000 animals per year.

It was a saddening part of an otherwise successful development in the fishing industry. The fishermen did not enjoy killing dolphins, a fact most evident to them if not to others. It was difficult to get the dolphins out of the nets alive, and it was dangerous, but they tried. Dolphins have some of the most powerful muscular responses in nature, and there were injuries. Certainly there were strong economic incentives to find ways to avoid catching the dolphins. A boat could set its nets three times on a dolphin-free school in the time it took to remove the dolphins from one set.

In 1958, Anton Misetich, the captain of a purse seiner from San Pedro, introduced the “backdown” technique in the Pacific. By this method, a seiner put the boat in reverse and towed the net, stretching it like a handkerchief. While the yellowfin tended to move deeper, the dolphins tended to gather at the far end and, when it worked, to swim over the cork-line in the rush of water, the “waterfall effect.”

Misetich showed the backdown technique to Manuel Neves, a San Diego fisherman. Neves’s crew resisted at first; they didn’t like the idea of towing a purse seine. The first time they tried it, it failed. But the second try was successful, and the school of dolphins swam free. Neves showed the backdown to other San Diego fishermen, and the dolphin mortality rate was reduced by tens of thousands while the productivity of the fishermen increased.

Harold Medina was responsible for another refinement, the “Medina Panel.” It seemed to him that the nets they were using, with 4'A-inch mesh, were just the right size for catching the dolphins’ noses. So he attached to the gathering end of the net a panel of smaller 2-inch mesh net, 100 fathoms long and 1 fathom deep. As a result, fewer dolphins became hung up in the nets. After the improvement was put in use by San Diego fishermen, the Medina Panel eventually became mandatory in the industry.

Because the tuna fleet was expanding, there were concerns about the state of the yellowfin populations. In 1966 the IATTC set a quota on yellowfin, the first international quota on tuna, and it was set very conservatively. The purse-seine fleet was capable of filling the new quota quickly. With their season effectively shortened, they began to look beyond the eastern Pacific for new grounds, much as they had during World War II. One of the California canneries had already relocated to American Samoa to buy tuna from the Japanese long-liners.

Harold Medina was involved in one of the first exploratory trips in 1970. His boat and five others (all with Portuguese captains — as Medina saw it, the Portuguese liked the “high-seas stuff”) cruised west. Each ran along a different latitude line, 3 degrees, or 60 miles apart. Harold was farthest south, 3 degrees above the equator. He didn’t come upon fish, but the boats between 7 and 12 degrees, running on a current break, did. They loaded up and went to the cannery in American Samoa. Word spread quickly. By the time they returned to the fishing spot, other San Diego boats were already there.

That was the beginning of the “outside-the-line” fishery, beyond the eastern tropical Pacific grounds covered by the IATTC quota. It was as rigorous as the bait-boat fishery. On a typical trip, a boat might leave California, load up in the western Pacific, go to a Van Camp cannery in American Samoa, make a trip to grounds off New Zealand (5000 miles away from San Diego), get two loads, deliver them to a StarKist cannery there, head east for another outside-the-line load, deliver the fish to Samoa, and then head home to California. The trip might have lasted four months. But the boats did well. The average catch per day was 24 tons for the fleet. Individual boats were catching 4000 to 5000 tons of skipjack and yellowfin per year.

Between 1982 and 1984, the canneries finally left California. One reason was the warm-water El Nino of 1981 that caused the numbers of fish in the eastern Pacific to decrease greatly. Another was the expense of meeting standards imposed by the EPA; a lot of water was used to clean fish in the canning process. But the primary reason was the cost of labor. Cannery workers were getting more than $ 0 an hour, and they wanted an increase. American canneries were competing with Asian labor at 30 cents to 50 cents an hour and labor in Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, Panama, and Africa $2 to $4 or less. The canneries closed down, unbolted the machinery, and moved away. Another era came to an end.

When the El Nino condition of 1979 concentrated fishing effort in the western Pacific, the boats were catching mostly skipjack tuna, which didn’t bring the price of yellowfin but were abundant almost beyond measure. Nevertheless, costs of operating in the western Pacific were high, especially fuel costs. Through the 1980s the purse-seine fleet decreased to fewer than 100, though because of increased boat size, production remained the same.

When U.S. boats branched out from the eastern tropical Pacific during the 1980s, Latin American boats increased their presence. The ETP Is the most productive area for yellowfin tuna in the world; in good years it yielded 40 percent of the global catch of yellowfin, and, including the skipjack catch, 25 percent of the canned tuna supply. But one consequence of the entry of new fleets into the fishery was an increase in dolphin kills. The mortality rate had dropped to less than 40,000 animals in 1979, but by 1986 the figures were up to 130,000.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1974 had established quotas on dolphin kills. But by the late 1980s, with various reports coming out of the fishery, some environmental organizations took an intense interest in the yellowfin tuna fishery.

In 1987 Sam LaBudde, a biologist working for the Earth Island Institute, went aboard a Panamanian seiner and filmed a set that yielded a very high dolphin mortality. (Actually, LaBudde filmed several sets, later edited as one disastrous set.) The Panamanian boat had an inexperienced captain and crew and didn’t use the backdown technique. The boat would soon go out of business. And the trip LaBudde filmed was made a few months before an agreement between Panama and the U.S. that would have required trained captains and observers onboard. But those were merely technicalities when the film was shown internationally as an example of the work of tuna fishermen, the kind of fishing that was done for the can of tuna in most supermarkets.

When fishermen in California saw the film they said, “We don’t fish that way. Everybody knows we don’t fish that way.” But few people knew how the fishery worked. To the general public it seemed reasonable to demand that fishermen find ways to stop killing dolphins. After all, if they were capable of catching so many fish, of generating such a high-tech industry with such big and impressive boats, then surely they could find a way to catch fish without killing dolphins. The fishermen, who’d tried for years to reduce the dolphin kill, felt this would be like asking truckers to work under the assurance of no highway accidents.

In response, amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1988 required that all boats from all countries working in the ETP yellowfin fishery participate in the IATTC observer program and use dolphin-release techniques developed by U.S. fishermen. There was a mandate for economic embargoes against non-complying nations.

With the LaBudde film paving the way, in 1988 Earth Island Institute director David Phillips began a dolphin-safe campaign, with the goal of eliminating all dolphin kills in the eastern tropical Pacific. One approach was legislative, ultimately resulting in passage of the International Dolphin Protection Act of 1992. But Earth Island’s most effective approach was the threat of a consumer boycott of tuna that was not “dolphin-safe.” By Earth Island’s definition, any tuna caught by encircling dolphins with purse seines was dolphin-unsafe, whether the dolphins were released or not.

Before long StarKist, Bumblebee, and Van Camp, the “Big Three” canners, began getting calls from major retail chains about threats by animal rights groups to picket their stores for selling dolphin-unsafe tuna. In April 1990 StarKist executives announced they would sell only dolphin-safe tuna. Bumblebee and Van Camp had to fall in behind them. As a result, San Diego tuna fishermen were told that the canneries would no longer buy any mature yellowfin tuna caught in the eastern tropical Pacific.

This began the dolphin-safe era, another revolution in the San Diego tuna fishery. In the spring of 1990, 35 of the 65 U.S. boats of over 800-ton capacity were working in the eastern tropical Pacific. By the fall of 1990, only 11 boats remained. By 1993 six U.S. boats were working in the ETP.

Some owners sold their boats. Julius Zolezzi, whose family had been in tuna fishing since 1928, owned four boats in 1990. He sold the smallest to outfit the other three for fishing in the western Pacific, at a cost of about $1 million. The greatest expense was in the nets, which had to be 600 feet deep, because the water was so warm and the thermocline so deep, the tuna were driven farther down to find cool water. Each net cost about $400,000. Bigger hydraulic systems were needed to haul them, and each boat required upgrades in its electronic and sonar systems.

By 1995,44 purse seiners remained in the Pacific fleet. Of the 4 or 5 boats still working in the eastern Pacific, 2 or 3 were encircling dolphins and selling their catch to canneries in Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, and Mexico that continued to accept dolphin-associated fish. The ETP boats were also targeting “school fish,” immature yellowfin under ten pounds.

It was this fishery that called the dolphin-safe movement into question. Scientists at IATTC determined that if the fleet concentrated on immature yellowfin, the population would decrease by 30 to 60 percent. And though seiners targeting immature yellowfin weren’t killing dolphins, their by-catch did include millions of smaller, unmarketable tuna, and tens of thousands of sharks, billfish, mahi-mahi, triggerfish, and sea turtles. During one trip, a boat took 40 tons of sharks in a single set; the sharks, which give off ammonia when they die, ruined the catch of 280 tons of tuna. And so the question arose, How many other animals is a dolphin worth?

Though the U.S. fleet, for the most part, was no longer fishing on dolphins, 90 boats from 11 other countries were, the majority of them Mexican and Venezuelan. The irony was that though the U.S. fleet had abandoned (or been driven out of) the eastern fishery, the Latin American boats there had participated in the IATTC program, and by 1991 dolphin kills were down to 27,000,80 percent lower than in 1986. The 1988 amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act had resulted in an 80 percent decline in dolphin mortalities, even though it wasn’t the U.S. fishery achieving it.

For California fishermen, this was a little hard to take. As they saw it, they had lost their fishery through a distorted media and public relations campaign. They were now the bad guys, the ones against dolphins. Fishermen had long viewed themselves as hardy men from maritime cultures who braved the sea to catch food for people and make prosperous, meaningful lives for themselves. Now they were being characterized as “rapists of the natural environment wielding curtains of death, killing sentient beings.” The eco-warrior, defending a megafauna such as the dolphin, had in turn become a most prestigious archetype — for example, the segment at the end of the film Free Willy, soliciting for the Earth Island Institute.

In the fight, for the eco-warrior, anything was fair; the end justified the means. The director of Earth Island Institute was, by his own description, a “no-holds-barred dolphin activist.” And of course, the dolphin is one of the most charismatic of megafauna. (I know this personally. As a dolphin trainer, I had made Stormy and Spray jump through hoops and spit out fires and pluck pieces of paper out of my mouth). But to those fishermen dropping hundreds of thousands of undersized tuna overboard in the name of the environment, it seemed like the world had turned upside down. The good guys had become bad, and bad had become good.

In the marketplace, dolphin-unsafe tuna dragged down the prices for all tuna. From 1990 to 1992, prices dropped 22 percent, to 1977 levels. Yellowfin were bringing $750 a ton, down from $1200 in 1987. Small yellowfin were worth only $175 a ton, but the seiners caught them to meet payments.

In 1992 the International Dolphin Conservation Act was passed and signed by President Bush, calling for a moratorium on the seining of dolphins — a U.S. quota for zero dolphin kills, with penalties that included boat seizure. A contingency calling for agreement from Mexico and Venezuela, however, ultimately prevented implementation. And under Mexican initiation, a GATT panel found the U.S. embargo on dolphin-unsafe nations illegal, claiming that one country couldn’t impose environmental standards on another when operating outside its jurisdiction, and recommending a multilateral program. Then in June 1992, IATTC presented the La Jolla Agreement, a proposal for multilateral cooperation in the eastern Pacific, with goals of reducing the deaths of dolphins from 19,500 in 1993 to 5000 in 1999 through quotas on individual boats and educational programs.

Nineteen ninety-two was also the year that the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior (with a banner across the bow that read “Revoke the License to Kill”) docked in San Diego to show support of zero mortality. Using a Zodiac, they strung a banner on a tuna boat, one that had been fishing dolphin-safe, which read “Dolphin Killer,” and the LaBudde film was shown aboard the Rainbow Warrior. Two hundred people came to the docks to protest Greenpeace’s appearance, telling the activists to look at the reports, talk to the scientists and the fishermen. The ship moved on to Ensenada and met another protest. Some of the people who’d gathered in San Diego formed the Fishermen’s Coalition, now based in Coronado, to advocate for the tuna fishery.

Of course, the dolphin-safe movement forced the fishermen to get better. In 1995 the number of dolphins killed was below 5000, four years ahead of schedule. Since the dolphin population in the eastern tropical Pacific is at about ten million, the number of dolphins killed in purse-seining operations in 1995 represented about .05 percent of the population. By the reasoning of those in the fishery, this was a manageable amount, since the population of dolphins grows by 2 to 6 percent per year, or 200,000 to 600,000 animals in the ETP. Fishermen, they said, were releasing 99 percent of the dolphins from their nets.

In 1995 the La Jolla Agreement turned into the Panama Declaration. It was essentially the same document —a low-mortality-rate, education-and-training plan — but with a new, workable definition of dolphin-safe. If a purse seiner caught a mixed school of yellowfin tuna and dolphins and then let all the dolphins free, the load could be called dolphin-safe, upon certification of the onboard observer. There would be the problem of keeping dolphin-unsafe fish separate from dolphin-safe fish, but it was something the fishermen were willing to work with, a definition that would allow U.S. boats to reenter the eastern fishery. Meeting at Panama, government and fisheries officials signed on to the Panama Declaration, along with representatives of several major environmental groups, including Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, the Center for Marine Conservation, and the Environmental Defense Fund — another sign of a growing trend within the environmental movement for consideration of habitats and ecosystems over the cause of a single species. The Earth Island Institute wasn’t in agreement It is generally thought they never would be.

Still, among fishermen, there’s bitterness. Many of the older generation think that the dolphin activists “ruined a beautiful industry.” Some think it was a big mistake not to publicly and legally challenge Sam LaBudde and the Earth Island Institute for its use of the film from the Panamanian seiner. In San Diego there’s a generation of men in their late 30s to early 50s who might be buying their first boats now but are not; some think that a generation of fishermen has been lost. For example, in 1995, for the first time since 1917, a San Diego boat isn’t owned by a Medina.

There’s one West Coast cannery left, in San Pedro (“California’s last hope”), that was in bankruptcy for years but has now come under new ownership. There are a number of cannery-sponsored buying stations along the coast, from San Diego to Crescent City. In San Diego, 14 commercial bait boats remain, still going to southern waters, though it’s a tricky business with the red tape and licensing involved. Those boats recently finished their season, outfitted for trolling, and moved off to Pitcairn Island, near French Polynesia in the Western Pacific, to fish for albacore. After all, alba-core has always been the basis of the California tuna fishery.

And there are still those 46 boats, off in the western Pacific, with their helicopters and their hundred-fathom nets, catching 200,000 tons of tuna a year, the boats behind the can with the emblem of the dolphin on it, fishing a century after the Portuguese whalers who preceded them.

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