Defenders Turns Fifty

by Maria W. Cecil

Spring 1997


Thirty-mile-long driftnets used to capture tuna and other ocean fish formerly killed or maimed countless dolphins as well as hundreds of thousands of sea birds and other marine mammals. Defenders led the successful efforts in the 1980s and 1990s for legislation that solved this alarming problem. We chaired both the Entanglement Network and the Dolphin Coalition, which won a U.S. embargo on driftnet-caught tuna in 1991. In 1992, Defenders led another successful effort which, with the support of actor Christopher Reeve, persuaded the United Nations to ban large-scale driftnets on the high seas. We then won congressional passage of the High Seas Driftnet Fisheries Enforcement Act, providing sanctions against violators of the U.N. moratorium.

In addition, our coalition won enactment of "dolphin-safe" labeling requirements for tuna caught with methods that don't harm dolphins. We are continuing to work to phase out the use of circular purse-seine nets in the eastern Pacific ocean to trap the yellowfin tuna that commonly congregate under dolphins. This fishing method has killed millions of dolphins.

The vaquita, or Gulf of California harbor porpoise, a rare species discovered in 1956, and the totoaba, a big sea bass, share a limited habitat along the northern coasts of Baja California and the state of Sonora in Mexico. Commercial totoaba fishing has imperiled the elusive vaquita, which drowns when it is entangled in heavy gillnets.

In 1978 Defenders petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to list the vaquita for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The following year NMFS listed the totoaba as endangered, but it didn't get around to giving similar status to the vaquita until 1985. Defenders won federal funding for vaquita research, and both the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and the International Whaling Commission gave high priority to saving the species.

In 1992 Defenders sent a team to the Gulf of California to investigate reported smuggling of totoaba meat into California. The team returned with stories of widespread illegal totoaba fishing and the first video of live vaquitas. The publicity we generated on the issue prompted then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to declare 3,700 square miles of the Gulf of California a biosphere reserve, strictly limiting commercial fishing and oil drilling.