What Does Dolphin-Safe mean?

When purchasing canned tuna, you may have seen “dolphin-safe” label on the can. But what exactly does that mean?

In the U.S., the dolphin-safe label is focused on the relationship between yellowfin tuna and herds of dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. In this area of the ocean, large mature yellowfin tuna swim under certain species of dolphins for reasons that are not fully known by scientists. Due to the area’s unique oceanographic characteristics, the grouping of yellowfin tuna and dolphins rarely occurs in other areas of the ocean.

A fishery in the area uses dolphins to locate tuna by chasing them and encircling the dolphins with the tuna in a huge net called a purse seine. In the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of thousands of dolphins were killed by the fishery. Public concern over the impact to dolphin populations in this area led to the development of the dolphin-safe label as a way for consumers to ensure that no dolphins were harmed to make their canned tuna.

In the 1980s, a campaign was launched to encourage Americans to boycott canned tuna. In response to the boycott, the three major canned tuna companies, Bumble Bee, Starkist and Chicken of the Sea, pledged to only purchase tuna caught without chasing and encircling dolphins in purse seine nets. To advertise this to consumers, they placed a blue label on the can, which effectively closed the U.S. market to purse seine vessels fishing in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. Rather than guaranteeing that no dolphins were killed in the fishing process, the label signifies that in tuna items sourced from the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, dolphins were not chased and encircled to capture the tuna.

Soon after the tuna companies created the label, the U.S. government adopted the labeling procedures into law with the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act of 1987.

Hy-Vee customers can enjoy any brand of canned tuna they choose, as every type Hy-Vee offers carries the dolphin-safe label. Customers can be assured that the canned tuna they buy at Hy-Vee did not come from vessels that chase and encircle herds of dolphins. In addition, Responsible Choice Hy-Vee Select canned skipjack and albacore tuna are caught with methods that are both dolphin-safe and environmentally friendly. You can read more about the items in a previous blog post.

Author: Kathleen Mullen-Ley

My name is Kathleen Mullen-Ley, and I am a project manager for FishWise. FishWise, a nonprofit sustainable seafood consultancy, has been working with Hy-Vee to research and recommend seafood product sourcing, develop and implement Hy-Vee's Responsible Choice Seafood materials and staff training, and analyze data to measure progress towards Hy-Vee's 2015 Commitment. I hold a master’s degree in marine biodiversity and conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a Bachelor of Arts in environmental studies from the University of California Santa Cruz. My graduate research project was an analysis of the World Trade Organization ruling on the U.S. dolphin-safe tuna label and its implications for future market-based marine conservation efforts. My experience analyzing fishery management issues and communicating marine science to diverse audiences combined with my respect for ocean life has made me well-prepared to take on the challenges of sustainable seafood.