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One Year Later, Venezuelan Tuna Industry Still Reeling From U

February 9, 1992

One Year Later, Venezuelan Tuna Industry Still Reeling From U.S. Embargo With BC-Tuna Ban-History

CUMANA, Venezuela (AP) _ For as long as anyone here can remember, the giant tuna boats - known as purse seiners for the nets they use - have set sail from this gusty Caribbean port to cast their nets in surrounding waters.

For fishermen, the fact that dolphins and tuna often swim together has been valuable: The 180-foot ships are equipped with high lookout posts that provide a commanding view of the sea. When spotters see the air-breathing mammals break the surface, they know tuna are near.

But nearly a year ago, a U.S. federal judge ordered an embargo on tuna imports from Venezuela and Mexico because their nets kill too many dolphins in the eastern Pacific.

The ban has the people of Cumana, home to Venezuela’s tuna industry, feeling bitter and worried about the future.

″It has hurt our sales badly. The price has gone down and we’ve had to lay people off,″ said Carmelo Cannavo, whose family owns four large tuna boats here. ″They (U.S. policy makers) think they are doing something good. But they are hurting our livelihood.″

Added tuna boat owner Enzo Natoli: ″If this situation continues, tuna fishermen will have to decide to stop fishing.″

The embargo, which last month was widened to include countries that get their tuna from Venezuela and Mexico, threatens more than 50,000 jobs in the Cumana area, officials say.

″I understand this is a sentimental issue, but we cannot make this animal more important than a human being,″ Francisco Herrera of the Venezuelan agriculture ministry said. ″Should we let half a million people die of hunger ... because of Flipper?″

But U.S. officials and environmentalists maintain it’s important to preserve the dolphins. And, they add, the United States isn’t likely to change its position, despite a recent finding by an international panel that the ban was a protectionist trade measure.

″If Venezuela wants to sell tuna in the United States, they’re going to have to lower their dolphin kill rate to acceptable levels. It’s as simple as that,″ said a U.S. trade official familiar with the issue who refused to be identified.

The numbers demonstrate the impact. In 1990, Venezuela sold nearly 50,000 tons of east Pacific tuna to the United States. At $1,200 per ton, the industry grossed about $60 million.

In 1991, without the U.S. sales, the price dropped to below $700 per ton. Venezuelan officials claim the embargo has cost the local industry about $100 million.

With last month’s order, officials now worry their markets in Europe and Asia will disappear, further devastating the industry. The order extended the ban to 20 countries that import the fish from Venezuela and Mexico, process it and then export it to the United States.

Venezuelan officials have threatened a retaliatory ban on some U.S. imports here.

But they also maintain their fleet has reduced its dolphin kill rate by 75 percent in the past three years. In 1990, an estimated 4,800 dolphins died in Venezuelan nets, far below the more than 15,000 killed in 1988.

Even so, the Venezuelan industry may be unable to stop snaring dolphins in its tuna nets altogether. The two animals swim together in the eastern Pacific, the only region where the phenomenon is known to occur.

When a spotter spies the dolphins, the frantic call goes out. In a flurry of activity, shipboard helicopters are launched while the purse seiners ready their nets.

The helicopters fly in circles above the mammals, confirming by sight whether tuna are actually beneath the dolphins. If they are, the nets are set out.

Meant to catch tuna, the nets often ensnare the dolphins, causing them to drown.

James Joseph of the U.S.-based Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission said the large yellowfin tuna - the best catches - swim underneath the dolphins.

″The long-term solution is to find a way to catch big tuna without catching dolphins, but no one has figured that one out yet,″ said Joseph, whose commission estimates 25,000 dolphins died in the region last year. That’s down from 200,000 in the early 1970s.

″You can catch smaller tuna without dolphins, but if you catch them before they spawn, you reduce the entire tuna population,″ he said.

The men who work the ships in Cumana’s giant port don’t like to talk about the embargo, choosing to focus on the smaller things that occupy their day-to- day lives, such as local politics and family matters. The 1,000-ton boats set out to sea for up to three months at a time, returning when they’re full of fish.

″Sometimes they come back in 15 days, and they get rich real quick - at least they used to, before all this,″ said Mark Plout, an American who has repaired ships in the port for the last 11 years.

″Other times, they’re out for three months, and you get people coming back with all sorts of mental problems. It’s tough to be on a ship with 15 other guys for that long,″ Plout said.

But as the flow of dollars slows, Plout and others have noticed a change. ″The boats still go out and most guys still have their jobs, but there’s not as much money there as before,″ he said. ″Dolphins are the best way these guys have to find tuna - to do their job - so (the embargo) really hits them where they live.″

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