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SAN FRANCISCO - Environmentalists have sued the federal government to prevent it from labeling tuna "dolphin safe" if fishermen encircled the dolphins to make the catch.
The Earth Island Institute and other groups filed a lawsuit in federal court late Tuesday, hours after the Commerce Department revised labeling standards.
The government said tuna that fishermen catch by encircling dolphins may immediately be imported into the United States and bear the dolphin-safe label if observers certify no dolphins were killed or seriously injured in the process.
Under the old definition, any tuna caught using dolphins as targets were automatically barred from bearing the consumer-friendly label on cans sold in the United States.
Dolphin commonly swim with schools of tuna. Various reports have said between 2,000 and 3,000 dolphins are killed annually in connection with tuna fishing in the eastern Pacific, according to Reuters. Dolphin fatalities numbered in the hundreds of thousands decades ago, prompting new international efforts -- and the emergence of the dolphin-safe label -- to better protect the mammals.
In seeking to overturn the new dolphin-safe definition, environmental groups charged the Bush administration was sacrificing dolphins for the sake of free trade and misleading consumers in the process.
Among other things, the lawsuit said targeting dolphins during tuna fishing stresses dolphins to the point of "fatal heart damage" and can cause mothers and their offspring to become separated. Those and other factors may go unnoticed to fishing monitors, the groups charged.
No court date has been set.