The announcement by H J. Heinz, the parent company of Starkist Seafood, that its cannery would no longer purchase tuna caught with the purse-seine nets that so often snared and killed dolphins was one of the biggest public relations stories of last year, a triumph for the animal rights activists who had brought that cruelty to the attention of the public and the con­sumers who had boycotted tuna as a result.

With the nation's other major tuna marketers swiftly following suit, the media and the public celebrated what was presented as an unequivocal triumph of good over evil. What this coverage gener­ally failed to convey was the effect of the decision on the American tuna fishing industry.

Like the lumbermen in the Pacific Northwest who found their livelihoods being measured against the survival of the spotted owl, California's tuna fisherman were competing for the sympathy of the American public against an endangered species. Unlike the lumbermen, however, the tuna industry had already taken signif­icant steps of their own to better protect the dolphin, another part of the story that went largely untold.

"Environmentalists failed to acknowl­edge that U.S. fishermen have pioneered dolphin-safety techniques and technolo­gy," says August Felando, president of the American Tunaboat Association, head­quartered in San Diego. "America's tuna fleet has a 99.4% dolphin-safety record, three to four times better than foreign fishermen. Every day, American fishermen jump into the water to rescue dolphins."

Even before the StarKist announce­ment, the Association had selected San Diego PR firm The Gable Group to develop and implement a public relations education campaign aimed at countering legislation in Washington, D.C. Driven by special interest groups, the Boxer-Biden Bill threatened to devastate the U.S. fleet financially and force more owners to sell out to foreign interests.

"Our mission was to tell the story of the American fisherman, educate the media and members of Congress and dis­tinguish the porpoise rescue techniques of the U.S. fleet from the practices of foreign fishermen," says agency president Tom Gable. "This was a priority because special interest groups were illustrating their case by use of a misleading film shot aboard a foreign vessel, where an untrained crew with improper equipment killed porpoise."

The campaign had four primary objec­tives:

  • to defend and promote the dolphin safety record of the U.S. fleet;
  • to tell the American Tunaboat Association story, positioning the U.S. fleet as caretakers of the ocean and foreign fishermen as failing to meet the same stan­dard;
  • to alter the language of the Boxer­Biden bill to take account of the needs of fishermen; and
  • to unite the fleet and provide fisher­men with reusable communications tools and strategies.

There were two key messages to con­vey: that the new policy adopted by can­ners could destroy the U.S. fishing industry, which ironically was doing more than any other to protect the dolphins; and that it could therefore, even more ironi­cally, result in an increase in dolphin mortality due to the increased strength of for­eign fleets that did not exercise the same level of responsibility.

It was clear, however, that any communication of these views was going to take place in a highly charged emotional atmo­sphere. The film taken aboard a Panamanian fish­ing vessel by Sam LaBudde in 1987, which became famous after repeated television airings, depicted dolphins being senselessly brutalized and was extremely effective in mobilizing public opinion against the whole tuna fishing industry. San Diego fishermen reported walking past crowds chanting "Murderers!" as they went to work.

One of the first things The Gable Group did was challenge the veracity of the film, urging the media to identify it for what it was before it was aired, and to consider the overall record of the industry.

"Opponents of fishing on porpoise cre­ate a great deceit with the implication that the film represents normal practice in the fishery" said Augusto Felando. "It attacks those individuals—American fishermen—who are the very ones who have creat­ed technology and techniques to save the dolphins."

Gable produced a press kit that included information about the standards set by American fishermen, indicating that the U.S. fleet was responsible for fewer than 13,000 dolphin fatalities each year (the world total was more than 100,000, and the limit set by the Marine Mammal Protection Act 20,000) and examining the techniques used to improve dolphin safety, including an extensive training program.

Press materials also included a back­grounder on the American tuna fisherman—"a rare and endangered species"—designed to add a human aspect to the problem. The backgrounder focused on the decline of the American tuna fishing fleet from 128 boats a decade ago to 65 boats today, and the resulting unemploy­ment. The materials claimed that more than 500 fishing jobs were threatened by the StarICist initiative.

"While environmentalists promoted simplistic fixes to the dilemma facing dol­phins and the American fleet, we wanted to make it clear that none of them would come without signif­icant cost," says Tom Gable. "It was a price we believed many Americans would be unable or unwill­ing to pay."

Third party endorse­ment was clearly vital if the tuna fishermen's message was to get through, and the ATA secured the assistance of Steve Landino, a former observer for the National Marine Fisheries Service, and of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, both of whom testified as to the superiority to American tuna fishing methods com­pared to those of foreign fleets.

All of this was backed up by a video news release distributed nationwide the day before Congressional hearings commenced, and an eight minute technical video which highlighted the modern techniques of the American fleet with footage from a recent voyage of a U.S. tuna boat and interviews with fishermen.

Media coverage included a favorable editorial in The Wall Street Journal and positive coverage in USA Today, The New York Times and the San Diego Union. The VNR was seen by more than two million and overall media coverage of the issue became more balanced, with the press seeking out industry spokesmen.

Meanwhile, The Susan Davis Companies were working with the ATA in Washington, suggesting new label lan­guage for tuna sold in American stores and calling on the U.S. to negotiate new treaty agreement that would require foreign fleets to equal U.S. standards for porpoise protection. The ATA suggested using the standard of the Marine Mammal Protection Act—with which U.S fisher­men already complied—and stopping the use of "logos or, other marketing gim­micks."

"It seems every time there is a new concern about porpoise mortality, atten­tion focuses on us, the ones providing the solution, rather than on the causes of the problem," said ATA chairman Bob Virissimo.

While many environmentalists were far from satisfied with the suggestions of the ATA: claiming that 13,000 dolphin mortalities were still too many, and that the MMPA protection levels were not sufficient, there was an admission by some special interest groups that the U.S. fleet had made valuable progress and that the issue was not as black­and-white as it had initially been portrayed.

The Boxer-Biden Bill is still pending, but there are some changes expected.

"The fleet continues to use the same strategies in presenting its record to the media and Congress," says Tom Gable. "Its spokesmen have been trained to handle media enquiries and the entire fishing industry has banded together to present its side of the issue, until the tuna-dolphin debate is resolved on a world wide basis."

While public sympathy for the plight of dolphins is not likely to go away—and nor would most people want it to—the articulate advocacy of the American Tunaboat Association means that legisla­tors and the public are now more aware of the subtleties of the issue.