By Adrian Dunn
How do you choose your canned tuna? If you’re like me, it may be by price, or perhaps by type of tuna—albacore or white, light, or chunk tuna. You probably don’t think about the fact that your tuna purchase may be inadvertently supporting slave labor on boats from Thailand or helping to deplete populations of sea turtles, sharks or rays through indiscriminate fishing practices. You may even choose cans marked “wild caught” or “dolphin friendly” or other tags meant to reassure the environmentally aware consumer, but does that actually mean that your purchase supports sustainable fishing practices and is not leading to the demise of the ocean ecosystem upon which we all depend?
The bad news is, it’s complicated. Fish stocks of all types have diminished in the last 50 years. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, over 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted (http://www.un.org/events/tenstories/06/story.asp?storyID=800). This is due to modern industrial fishing practices that indiscriminately scoop up fish and other sea life in skeins miles long, as well as habitat loss from climate change, ocean acidification, and shore pollution of spawning grounds. Of all the varieties of tunas—skipjack, yellow fin, albacore, bigeye, bonito, northern bluefin, southern bluefin, and tongol—some are more depleted than others. The prized bluefin tuna is on the verge of disappearing if overfishing continues at the current rate. Bluefin used to be so plentiful, it was ground up for catfood in the U.S. Now it is going for astronomical prices in Japan for sushi and sashimi. A single huge bluefin, 489 lbs, sold three years ago in a Tokyo auction for a record $1.76 million. The price reflects the rarity of this disappearing fish, which can take 20 years to reach its maximum size.
Consider the following when making your canned tuna purchase:
- Fishing methods—modern fishing methods that use purse skein nets, huge nets that close up like a purse—catch billions of pounds of bycatch (unintentional catch of other species) every year, unintentionally killing baby fish, turtles, sharks, and rays. Conventional longline fishing also has a high rate of bycatch. It is better to choose tuna caught by pole or trolling
- Ethical labor practices—choose a brand that guarantees a traceable chain from catch to can, and that guarantees fair labor practices throughout the supply chain. According to the Associated Press (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/b9e0fc7155014ba78e07f1a022d90389/ap-investigation-are-slaves-catching-fish-you-buy), Southeast Asian slave labor is used on some boats supplying seafood and fish, which end up in U.S. supermarkets for human and pet consumption. Greenpeace reports that some of these illegal operations supply fish for a huge company, Thai Union, owner of Chicken of the Sea and currently set to purchase Bumble Bee (http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/major-us-tuna-brands-connected-slavery-sea-human-rights-abuses/).
- Misleading labeling—labels like “wild caught” (virtually all tuna is wild-caught), “dolphin-safe” (but what about other species like sharks, turtles, etc?) can mislead the consumer. Likewise, some tuna marked certified by the Marine Stewardship Counsel (MSC) may actually not be sustainable, according to recent reporting (http://www.npr.org/2013/02/11/171376509/is-sustainable-labeled-seafood-really-sustainable).
Confused? The good news is that hardworking organizations are already monitoring fish stocks and fishing practices worldwide and have done the research for you. Find out which brands and which supermarket chains are the best choices. Greenpeace (http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/oceans/tuna-guide/) has an extensive Tuna Shopping Guide. They rank 14 brands of canned tuna based on available stocks, fishing methods, and brand commitment to sustainable practices. At the top of the list as the most responsible are Wild Planet, American Tuna, Ocean Naturals, and Wild Tuna (Whole Foods brand). At the bottom of the list as the least responsible for sustainability are Great Value (Walmart’s brand), Chicken of the Sea, Bumble Bee, Kroger, and Starkist brands.
To learn about the status of other fish and seafood stocks, you can use the Environmental Defense Fund Seafood Selector http://seafood.edf.org/. The EDF Seafood Selector is an amazing educational tool. Click on the fish of your choice and find out where and how they are fished, and whether stocks are plentiful or endangered. Choices are listed as Good, OK, and Worst. Listings also show how many servings of each fish type are recommended for humans based on their likely mercury content. There are additional listings for sushi and seafood.
With all of these great resources, you can make conscious choices to do your part in maintaining a sustainable ocean ecosystem. Other steps you can take are supporting organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund and Greenpeace as they monitor and actively work with the fishing industry worldwide. You can also contact your local supermarket and ask what they are doing to help preserve a sustainable source of fish and seafood.