Cultura 10 Dic 2012
The Flipper Seal of Approval

Tuna certainly got the shit beat out of it with the evolutionary ugly stick and would most definitely eat you and yours if given the chance. Dolphins, on the other hand, are cute and way smarter than you and save puppies: how to make your banal supermarket ritual more ethically problematic.

When you enter the canned fish section of a supermarket in the United States of America, the tins of tuna will undoubtedly be branded with one of several "dolphin safe" labels, which branding can usually be found, at least for most American commercial canned tuna, between the "International Symbol for Recycling" and a "Hechsher" or kosher approval glyph.

The imagery for these dolphin safe labels varies slightly, depending on the imparting organization, but they all basically depict the same thing: usually a circular emblem with the silhouette of a dolphin tracing an arc through the air above the sea (save the notable exception of Earthtrust's anthropomorphous "Flipper Seal of Approval," which has a half-out-of-the-water, cartoon version of Flipper waving its fin and smiling at consumers - think Hannah-Barbera's Jabberjaw). The most old-school of these labels is the one supplied by Earth Island Institute's International Marine Mammal Project. These guys are the Mossad of cetacean liberation and they basically started the whole dolphin-tuna awareness thing with a late-80s massive consumer boycott of tuna that itself had been steeped in years of smaller protests.

In the late 1950s, major commercial fishing boats began to use purse seine nets to catch yellowfin tuna in the Tropical Eastern Pacific Ocean. Seine nets are long nets that hang vertically in the water thanks to weights attached to the bottom, and they have existed since at least the ancient Egyptians. Purse seine nets use the same ancient principle, but are absurdly big (think kilometers) and have a cord running through a set of rings at the bottom of the net which, when tightened, prevents fish from sounding, or escaping downward. Yellowfin tuna tend to swim deep and are therefore hard to spot from a boat, but conveniently (and inexplicably) often travel beneath herds of dolphins, which tend to swim closer to the surface. When the net is closed, the dolphins are entrapped and, as it's a pretty big pain in the ass to separate the wheat from the chaff, especially when you've got like 10 km² of nets to untangle, these cetaceans become a byproduct of the process.

The reality of this, not to mention the scale and frequency, didn't become public knowledge until 1988 when Samuel Labudde, an American biologist, sneaked into Mexico incognito and managed to get hired on a Panamanian fishing boat as a cook. There, using gonzo filming techniques, he captured enough lo-fi hardcore horror scenes of sailors killing the shit out of dolphins to not only start a national boycott of canned tuna, but also to get the United States government to enact legislation banning this style of fishing. The end result of this being that by 1990 the three largest tuna companies in the world (StarKist, Bumblebee, and Chicken of the Sea) agreed to abide by the International Marine Mammal Project's standards for tuna fishing, resulting in a 95 percent decrease in dolphin kills . The Big Three could also say that they were doing some serious corporate social responsibility like, way before it was cool and they could flaunt this by using the now ubiquitous dolphin safe label.


Currently, there are a whole slew of issues resulting from the conversion of the developed world to dolphin safe. The Earth Island Institute has denounced, in a variety of visually assaulting font sizes , the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Committee for using their own dolphin safe label, which the EIT claims is "A DEATH CERTIFICATE for Dolphins". The IATTC is an organization made up of 21 member nations, "responsible for the conservation and management of tuna and other marine resources in the Eastern Pacific Ocean," but their primary interest is yanking as much tuna out of the water as possible and mashing it into a can. So it becomes uncomfortable when one of the IATTC's member nations (Mexico), which does some serious catching, can't enter into the U.S. market because of its anachronistic fishing methods, in spite of about a gazillion U.S.-Mexico trade agreements. This Catch-22 case eventually reached the World Trade Organization's Appellate Body, a pillar of moral law unto itself, which ruled in favor of the Mexicans , saying that forbidding non-dolphin safe labeled tuna to be sold on American shelves "modifies the conditions of competition in the US market to the detriment of Mexican tuna products."

Another problem with the dolphin safe label is what banning purse seine fishing itself implies. Large fisheries need to catch a lot of tuna to keep the grocery shelves stocked. If they can't do it using purse seine nets in the traditional, dolphin slaughter way, another method was going to be found. Enter "Fish Aggregating Devices" or FADs.

"Fish are fascinated with floating objects," according to Wikipedia , because these objects "provide a visual stimulus in an optical void." The fish gather around floating debris. Fishermen entrap the tuna/FAD/etc. with a purse seine net, trying to make sure no dolphins are inside, lift the whole mess out of the water, and everything in the net gets dead. The amount of tuna caught this way comes to at least 900,000,000 kilos per year, or one third of the world's yearly tuna harvest. Also hauled up are over 90,000,000 kilos of "bycatch," a euphemism used to mean other fish that aren't as commercially viable as tuna (sharks, mahi mahi, wahoo, triggerfish, rays, sea turtles, and in fact a whole lot of tuna that is too small - read: too young - to be processed). As a matter of fact, dozens of species of marine life have become endangered as a result of using FADs, including between 30-40 percent of the world's sharks , and the journal Nature has published a meta-study citing the year 2048 as the date in which worldwide marine ecosystems will face irreversible collapse if fishing continues at the current rate.

If international economics are against the dolphin safe label, and the environmental impact of this label is that of the widespread destruction of an ecosystem for the sake of one animal which has never been an endangered species (dolphins), why is the dolphin safe label still in use, and why do people care so much about dolphins?

One reason is surely their semblance to both household pets and to humans. "The dolphin smile is nature's greatest deception," says Ric O'Barry, original trainer of the original Flipper and current dolphin liberation uber-activist. "It creates the illusion that they're always happy." Bottlenose dolphins cannot not smile, the cruel irony of this leading to an event described by O'Barry in which the dolphin that played Flipper "commits suicide" by refusing to come up for air, all the while never shaking the grin off her face .

The modern widespread anthropomorphism of cetaceans can be traced directly back to Flipper the film (1963) and the subsequent TV program, which in terms of popular culture was basically an underwater Lassie (1954), a morally-untainted heroic pet that could communicate with humans. For most Americans alive today, the majority of the information they have about dolphins comes from Flipper and a host of pseudo-science and bizarre statistical anomalies related to cetaceans, and so killing a dolphin because it's in the way of tuna would be like shooting a collie because she's blocking the entrance to Taco Bell.

The real issue in this dolphin safe label fiasco is why one animal is given primacy over another in our culture, and therefore not eaten. The WEST's ethical trendsetter called THE BIBLE explains that man should "rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth." Later on, and most notably for the Jews, there are a shitload of forbidden foods, including pigs, most seafood, amphibians and reptiles, birds of prey, bats, bears, camels, insects, etc. Various are the reasons given for these dietary laws, and all of them are interpretive because there is no explanation in the Torah. Kashrut (the Torah's dietary laws), generally falls into the category of Chukim, or laws which have no rational explanation. For the better part of Jewish history, nobody asked why these laws were given to the people. It was accepted that they must be obeyed without second guessing from whence they came and in this way one showed deference to God's authority. Modern, non-orthodox historical interpretations of Kashrut usually point to health issues/hygiene, either modern or historical , or the politics of exclusion . This latter reading gets at a fundamental rule of dietary taboos: that they have historically been imposed not necessarily because of health reasons, but rather to create a group in which members can easily identify one another and exclude those who don't belong.

This idea still exists today, albeit in a vastly perverted form. In America we (generally) don't eat horse, dog, cat or guinea pig, yet there are a number of countries throughout the world where these animals are eaten regularly . In fact, many animals which not long ago were commonplace in the American palate have all but disappeared from the kitchen, except for the culinary aficionado or hunter, like deer, rabbit, and bear. Not to mention goat, sheep, duck and goose, which have all been on their way out for a while.

The reason for this is a systemic Disneyfication of selected animals, creating a new set of cultural taboos which have been instilled in the popular imagination of the many who grew up watching Bambi, Flipper, Winnie the Pooh, etc. Through the anthropomorphizing of certain animals, it becomes increasingly difficult to consider these animals as food, both for individuals and perhaps more importantly, for our society. One finds oneself, then, living with a strange paradox: the brain says no, but the belly says yes yes yes.

Not so in Japan, where dolphin is not an uncommon meal. The WEST condemns Japan's aesthetic tastes and moral turpitude all the while continuing to masticate the big four of Standard Meat until one requires gastrointestinal bypass surgery to be able to fit behind the SUV's wheel. The whole issue of factory farming has received enormous quantities of press in the last decade, and the only people unfamiliar with the circumstances in which Standard Meat products are produced are either illiterate or consciously ignorant , but it is worth pointing out that the conditions of most factory farms are far worse, pretty much any way you look at it, than the conditions, say, in which dolphins are caught.

Reason recommends there is no rationale for people to get more upset about slaughtering and eating dolphins than any other animal, and as a consequence there is no logical reason for people to favor eating tuna over dolphin, at least from an ethical perspective. As Peter Singer, the Don Corleone of animal rights notes, one should be "opposed to arbitrary discrimination" of this type . The dolphin safe label is helpful only in as much as it has educated people about the conditions in which some animals are killed for food, but it has done absolutely nothing to change those conditions in general, except for one particular species which has never been endangered. So why not just mash up everything hauled up in the nets and squirt it into a can?

In order not to fall into a pit of moral turpitude ourselves by consuming only those meats condoned by The Walt Disney Company, then one must, if he or she eats meat, at least accept the possibility of eating all meat. Or none at all. These are the only responsible possibilities available. As THE BIBLE says, "So then, because thou are lukewarme, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth." (Revelation 3:16)

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