This month a group of environmental organizations and other busybody NGOs, led by the Earth Island Institute (EII) and the Humane Society of the United States, sued the federal government to stop the implementation of new rules on so-called “dolphin-safe” tuna.

The U.S. Commerce Department had decided that tuna caught by encircling dolphins could be labeled “dolphin-safe,” as long as it could be proven that no dolphins were killed or seriously harmed in the process. According to The New York Times, the Commerce Department has already rolled over, and is delaying the new rule for 90 days while various “green” plaintiffs prepare to litigate the issue.

For reasons that are not very well understood, schools of tuna tend to swim directly underneath pods of dolphins in the Eastern Pacific, so tuna fishermen have traditionally lowered their nets in areas where dolphins abound. While some estimates say as many as 350,000 dolphins may have died in tuna nets each year in the 1970s and ‘80s, the National Marine Fisheries Service now estimates that number at only 1,600 per year.

So if the dolphin “bycatch” is down more than 99.5 percent, what is the Earth Island Institute afraid of? A Newsweek article from May 6, 2002 has answers in spades.

“Over the last decade,” writes Newsweek’s Alan Zarembo, “the Earth Island Institute has become a de facto global regulator of the $2 billion-a-year canned-tuna industry.” Some companies even treat EII “as if it were a government enforcement authority . . . . It’s as if lumber companies were paying the tree huggers of Earth First to police their logging operations.”

Zarembo paints a picture of EII as the tuna industry’s own Don Corleone, running what amounts to a very lucrative protection racket. “The [EII] monitoring program costs about $400,000 per year,” he writes. Guess who pays for it? EII gets $50,000 every year from just from one German trade association. But European tuna imports have fallen more than 80 percent in the last twenty years, says Mexico’s biggest fish processor, because “the buyers are afraid” of EII.

The operations director of Spain’s biggest tuna firm told Newsweek that he didn’t dare object when EII demanded access to his company’s complete supply chain. “We let the monitors into the factory,” he said. “We didn’t want any problems.” One of his colleagues added: “Earth Island can completely ruin your business.”