REP. JOHN MURPHY would amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act to let tuna fishermen catch 78,000 porpoises this year and next. That's tens of thousands too many. Under the act, the tuna fleet's catches of porpoises - air-breathing creatures that often swim above tuna - are supposed to fall toward zero. The government and the conservation lobby thought 59,000 was a fair figure, on the way down, this year. But the industry chose to beach its fleet in order to put puressure on Congress to let it catch more. The fleet has not caught many tuna this year, but it did catch Mr. Murphy, chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. Hearings on his 78,000-porpoise bill will resume Monday.

The tuna industry seems to feel about saving porpoises the way the old AMA felt about "socialized medicine." It has been regrettably slow, for instance, to install the fine-mesh nets that help keep porpoises from being entangled at the surface, and to introduce the "backdown," a shiphandling maneuver that sluices porpoises out of the nets. The fleet claims that porpoise regulations are an economic burden. But economists note that the industry's troubles have other roots. In its most harassed moments, the fleet threatens to transfer its boats to foreign ports. But that's a non-starter. The requisite government approval would not be granted for a transfer whose purpose was to evade American law. And the law bans the import of tuna caught by methods proscribed for American fishermen.

The fishermen deserve more understanding then they have received. They suddenly find their traditional ways challenged by a government that appears remote and bureaucratic and by a conservation movement that seems elitist and insensitive to everyday concerns. This puts upon the administration, whose own new legislative proposals are expected on Monday, a special burden of empathy - even while it acts to obey the law and save the porpoises.