Here in the United States, we consume about 1 billion pounds of canned tuna every year. And it’s not a surprise when you think of the versatility and ease of the humble can. We consume it on sandwiches, as hors d’oeuvres, in casseroles, on crackers—and we keep eating more of it every year. And, our palette has expanded well past the can: in the last 25 years, the popularity of sushi in the US has soared, and sushi is $2 billion industry.
But there’s a problem.
Our appetite for tuna (and other seafood) has led to a steep decline in certain populations, so much so that several species—like Atlantic Bluefin tuna—have nearing endangered species numbers.
The main contributors to this overfishing? The sweeping catch-all fishing methods used by the largest commercial fisheries to meet this high demand. And not only are these methods, like “gill net” and “drift net” unsustainable, but they entangle and kill a lot of by-catch—unintended animals like sea turtles, sharks, and porpoises.
But there’s also a solution.
As the consumer, you have a lot of sway to change how industries operate.
Remember in the 90’s when we found out that dolphins were severely threatened by the tuna fishing methods then and we learned to look for the cans marked “Dolphin safe”?
Today, meeting the standards to earn that label is common practice among fisheries. Why? Because so many of us demanded that dolphins be protected.
Although many commercial fisheries use destructive methods that aren’t advertised, quite a few brands practice sustainable methods and source sustainable species and label them as such for the discerning consumer. That’s where this guide comes in.
Sustainable Methods to Look For:
“pole and line caught”
-This label is the gold-standard. And it is exactly as it sounds: individual fisherman use poles to cast lines into the ocean and bring in the fish one at a time. The by-catch is at a complete minimum and stocks of tuna are not overfished. In addition, this method supports many more jobs in traditional fishing areas because more fishermen are needed per boat.
“troll-lining” or “troll caught”* (*not to be confused with the destructive “trawl fishing” method)
-This method is on par with “pole and line,” in regards to sustainability and ocean life safety because it also catches one fish at a time.
-This one is a little tricky. It can be a sustainable method, but only if it’s used without FAD’s, which are fish aggregating devices. If used without, very few other species are affected. When fishermen do use them, other species attracted to the fishing area are often harmed.
Monterey Bay Aquarium has a full page explaining each type of fishing method here.
Sustainable Species to Look For:
-This species is the most abundant with the healthiest worldwide stocks. On cans, it’s usually listed as “light tuna.” For an additional bonus, it’s also the lowest in mercury among the tunas!
-This one is probably the one you’re most familiar with, and it’s also considered a sustainable choice.
-This species can be a sustainable choice, but it’s especially important to note where your yellowfin is sourced and how it was caught. Outside of the US, this fish is frequently caught with unsustainable methods.
Avoid: Bluefin. This fish is prized at sushi restaurants and is often listed simply as “tuna,” but this species is not only over hunted to a point far past sustainable, but often caught with high by-catch methods. In addition, in some places, it’s hunted illegally because of its high value.
Sustainable Brands We Support:
Wild Planet Foods
There are a lot of canned tuna choices out there, but Wild Planet stands out as our top recommendation. They adhere strictly to the sustainability standards recommended by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in both their methods and where they source their fish, and they offer consumer-oriented transparency And, nutritionally-speaking, their canning methods ensure that their products retain much higher amounts of omega-3s and nutrients than other brands. We can’t speak more highly about this conscientious brand.
This brand is partners with both the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Program and the Ocean Wise program and are completely transparent about their sourcing, including the fishing methods by product. Not only that, but they vigorously test their fish for mercury and have achieved the lowest levels of mercury in their cans of any company. And, like Wild Planet, they only once-bake their cans to ensure that all the nutrients, including the omega-3s are retained.
This new brand uses only Skipjack Tuna for their full-meal products (which are also verified non-GMO!) and has earned a Friend of the Sea certification for the fish that they source.
We appreciate this brand not only because of the high quality of their products, but because they are continually seeking sustainability certification for their products and they provide full transparency to the consumer. They address each product individually in regards to the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council), Monterey Bay Aquarium, and other ocean conservation groups.
Sustainable fishing is more important than ever, and with our consumer dollars, we have the power to change the industry—and in the process, save species for future generations- enjoyment.
Monterey Bay Aquarium offers a comprehensive list and ranking system of sustainable seafood, both nationally and, specifically for North Carolina. In addition they offer a seafood app that you can take with you as a reference for when you dine out.