A DEADLY ROUNDUP AT SEA Pressure mounts to save the dolphin by restricting tuna fishing AND WITHIN MINUTES HALF A DOZEN POWERFUL SPEEDBOATS ARE LOWERED OVER THE SIDE INTO THE BRIGHT WATERS OF THE EASTERN PACIFIC. BURSTING INTO NOISY LIFE, THEY SLICE THROUGH THE CRESTING WAVE TOPS AT 35 KNOTS. DEAD AHEAD OF THEM, A POD OF PORPOISES, OR DOLPHINS, BOLT WITH FRIGHT, BUT THE FLEEING MARINE MAMMALS ARE SOON OVERTAKEN. LIKE COW PONIES ROUNDING UP CATTLE, THE SPEEDBOATS HERD HUNDREDS
OF DOLPHINS INTO A CIRCLE, WHILE THE 250-FT. MOTHER SHIP SLOWLY surrounds the spray-filled confusion of boats and dolphins with a mile-long, 450-ft.-deep nylon net.
Why pursue and trap these sociable, intelligent cetaceans? The dolphins are merely a fisherman's convenience. A few feet beneath them swims the real object of the hunt: a huge school of yellowfin tuna, which for reasons that baffle scientists often congregate below pods of dolphins. More than 90% of the yellowfin caught by the U.S. tuna fleet last year were taken by "setting on porpoise," the practice of dropping nets where dolphins frolic on the surface. As a result, thousands of dolphins are swept into tuna nets each year. Many of them become entangled beneath the surface and, since they are air breathers, drown.
Now, in an effort to curb the mounting toll on dolphins, the environmental group Greenpeace has threatened legal action. It hopes to make the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) enforce existing regulations limiting the number of dolphins that can be killed by tuna fishermen. That would be the most drastic action yet in a continuing campaign by conservationists to save the dolphin. If Greenpeace succeeds in its effort, the San Diego-based American Tunaboat Association estimates, the fleet will lose as much as $35 million in revenue.
Conservationists have been lobbying for measures to protect the animals since the early 1970s, when they distributed bumper stickers reading WOULD YOU KILL FLIPPER FOR A TUNA SANDWICH? In 1972, when 304,000 dolphins were lost to the nets, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which specified that dolphin kills by commercial fishermen were to be reduced in theory to "insignificant levels approaching a zero mortality." Further legislation, passed in 1984, fixed a numerical limit on the dolphins that could be killed by the U.S. tuna fleet: 20,500 dolphins a year.
The NMFS acknowledges that the fleet this year is already approaching its limit. "If the killing continues at the present rate," says Charles Fullerton, director of the agency's Southwest region, "the fleet will reach that (number) in September." Pressured by the environmentalists on one side and the tuna fishers on the other, the agency is still debating its next step.