August 06, 1990 12:00 PM

Sam LaBudde watched nervously from the deck of the Maria Luisa as the Panamanian tuna boat bore down on a school of dolphins struggling in the Pacific off the coast of Central America. “How many in the net?” the captain called out. “About 50,” a crew member replied. “Haul the net,” came the order.

As the Maria Luisa’s crew members began pulling in the mile-long purse seine net, LaBudde took a deep breath and switched on his 8-mm Sony camcorder. Purse seiners haul their nets with a power block, a large hydraulically driven pulley at the end of a boom. As the Maria Luisa’s net came aboard, the ensnared dolphins were trapped in the folds of webbing; most had drowned and some were crushed to death as they passed through the power block’s narrow aperture. “My heart was going like crazy,” says LaBudde. “I was filming so much dolphin death.” LaBudde kept filming as the crew flung the bloody, lifeless bodies of the dolphins back into the sea, saving only what they were after—the day’s catch of yellowfin tuna.

LaBudde’s five hours of footage—shot during an undercover operation from October 1987 to January 1988—provided the first filmed evidence that, as environmentalists had long claimed, some purse seiners were indiscriminately slaughtering dolphins while harvesting the yellowfin that often swim beneath the mammals. Since 1960 an estimated 6 million dolphins have been killed by such practices. “You see a dolphin in the open water and go, ‘Wow!’ ” says LaBudde, 34. “Then all of a sudden they’re in chaos, drowning by the hundreds.”

Edited down to 11 minutes, LaBudde’s “Dolphin Campaign Video” has produced stunning results. It helped spark a nationwide boycott of tuna, supported by schoolchildren, celebrities and business leaders. This spring, H.J. Heinz, owner of Star-Kist, the world’s largest tuna canner, announced that it would no longer buy tuna caught in nets that kill dolphins. The same day, Van Camp Seafood, canners of Chicken of the Sea tuna, and Bumble Bee Seafoods followed suit. The film has provoked protest from the American Tunaboat Association, which says that 99.4 percent of dolphins caught in U.S. nets in 1989 were freed. (Largely unregulated foreign tuna boats kill six times as many dolphins as U.S. boats.) “The Panamanian boat’s performance was unrepresentative of the U.S. fleet.” agrees Erik Bloemendaal, spokesman for Star-Kist, “but the film crystallized the issue for consumers. They told us they don’t want us to kill dolphins.”

Despite his unusual calling, LaBudde had a conventional upbringing in Evansville, Ind. His father is a biochemist and his mother a botanist. After high school, LaBudde headed west, first to Oregon, then to Alaska, where he worked for four years as a commercial fisherman, marine engineer, machinist and seismic crewman on the North Slope. In 1984 LaBudde returned to Indiana University to complete a degree in biology; afterward he worked as an observer for the National Marine Fisheries Service aboard a Japanese trawler in the Bering Sea.

In 1987, intent on taking a trip to the Amazon, LaBudde stopped at the San Francisco offices of the Earth Island Institute, an activist organization founded by former Sierra Club head David Brower. LaBudde picked up the Earth Island Journal and read a story about the tuna industry’s assault on dolphins. “I had no idea they were hunting down dolphins with speedboats and corralling them with explosives,” he says. “I asked Dave why they weren’t telling anybody. He said they were trying, but they didn’t have any visual documentation. I said, ‘I’ll get you all the documentation you want.’ ”

LaBudde became a man with a mission. “With my last $8001 drove across the border, hung out on the docks [of Ensenada, Mexico] and convinced the owner of the Maria Luisa to give me a job as an engineer and deckhand,” he recalls. Aboard, he used his camcorder surreptitiously and deflected suspicion by acting the role of the naive American. When LaBudde returned to San Francisco with his tape, Brower and the staff at Earth Island were astonished. “When we saw Sam’s stuff, our jaws hit the floor,” says David Phillips, director of the Institute’s dolphin project. “If Sam hadn’t gone out, it might have taken another decade to stop the killing.”

Phillips didn’t think quite so highly of LaBudde when they met three years ago. “Here was a guy who blew in off the street,” remembers Phillips, “and we didn’t know him from nothing. He was a drifter.” Admittedly a nomadic sort, LaBudde has no fixed abode. His eco-activism leaves little time for a personal life. LaBudde is skittish, somewhat claustrophobic and admits to an inconsistent personality. “I’m very uneven,” he says. “Highs and lows all the time.”

LaBudde’s success with the dolphin film was an unqualified high and prepared him for bigger environmental battles. In addition to publicizing the taking of walruses for ivory in Alaska and working with Brower to found Green Circle, an environmental equivalent of the Peace Corps, LaBudde has turned his attention to the killing of dolphins by international fleets. “The unifying thread of environmental destruction is that somebody is making a buck off it,” says LaBudde. “Those bucks come out of our back pockets. Today there are thousands of dolphins out there swimming around that would otherwise be dead. That’s consumer democracy in action.”

Susan Reed, Lorenzo Benet in Santa Monica

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