Sorry, Charley


The recent decision by the three major U.S. tuna canners to adopt dolphin-friendly purchasing policies illustrates the pros and cons of green consumerism.

The companies that sell StarKist, Bumblebee, and Chicken of the Sea tuna announced last spring that they will no longer buy tuna caught using methods that kill dolphins. The canners were responding to a Greenpeace-supported boycott and thousands of phone calls, letters, and postcards protesting the practice of casting nets around dolphins that accompany schools of yellowfin tuna in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. Although tuna consumption in the United States has been increasing in recent years, the canners worried that the boycott was retarding sales growth.

The switch to skyjack and young yellowfin tuna—which, like albacore, are not caught in conjunction with dolphins—will mean refitting boats to catch the smaller fish. The extra cost and reduced yield per catch are expected to result in retail-price increases of 2 cents to 10 cents a can—a premium that many customers say they're willing to pay in order to save dolphins.

The boycott and the response to it demonstrate that noncoercive methods can be used to achieve an environmental goal. However, it's not clear that the goal was sensible. Michael Kronman, a field editor for National Fisherman and a fisheries consultant, notes that there are some 11 million porpoises in the eastern Pacific, a healthy and stable population that is not endangered by tuna harvests. Backers of the tuna boycott would say that individual dolphins, as highly evolved, intelligent animals, are still worth saving.

But Kronman also argues that dolphin-safe policies undermine tuna stocks by shifting harvests to the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. The tuna in these areas tend to be younger than the eastern Pacific yellowfins, which are generally caught after they have already bred several times.