Did other sea animals needlessly die just so we can have our canned tuna? It's pretty likely. Bycatch – untargeted marine life caught accidentally – has been a major problem in the tuna industry as a result of wasteful fishing methods, causing the widespread death of threatened marine animals, including sharks, dolphins and turtles.
Last week, Greenpeace released whistleblower video footage that shows tuna fishermen killing and dumping protected marine life caught as bycatch in their nets.
The animals were lured into massive purse-seine nets by Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) – floating objects used to attract fish but that also draw other unwanted marine species as well.
The footage was taken by a New Zealand helicopter pilot in 2009 who worked as a spotter for tuna fishing boats operating in the Pacific Ocean. The whistleblower, whose identity Greenpeace disguised to protect him from industry retaliation, "said marine species, such as dolphins, manta rays, marlin and whales, were caught almost every time FADs were deployed," according to Australian news outlet PerthNow.
Despite the above whistleblower testimony, the use of FADs is considered a "dolphin-safe" fishing technique, and became popular worldwide during the 1990s after U.S. consumers started demanding "dolphin-safe" tuna (now a label under dispute with Mexico). While FADs cause less dolphin mortality than deploying purse-seine nets specifically on schools of tuna that swim with dolphins ("dolphin sets"), FADs remain the deadliest method when it comes to the resulting amount of bycatch (which may still include dolphins and other protected marine mammals).
Greenpeace asserts that banning the use of FADs in purse-seine fisheries would reduce canned tuna's bycatch by up to 90 percent.
It doesn't help that fishermen are responsible for self-reporting the dolphin, fish and turtle bycatch mortality caused by FADs, since their boats are typically too small for fishery regulators to require them to carry an observer aboard. Even observers on big boats, reports All About Wildlife.com, are often pressured "to look the other way when dolphin mortality may be occurring."
These industry pressures and limited label policies make whistleblowers essential. Only via honest insiders can we keep consumers in the know about the negative impacts of canned tuna production, and hold the big tuna brands accountable for their harmful practices.
Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.