In an era of anxiety about the foods we eat, whether a given choice is “good” or “right” based upon a complicated rubric of human and environmental costs, one food in particular makes even the most conscientious eaters among us break into a cold sweat—fish.
I’ve known would-be pescatarians who’ve reverted to carnivore habits because they found the stress of the seafood counter to be too extreme.
When is “farmed” better than “wild”? Which fishing locations are ok for which fish? What does local mean in San Diego when we share a coastline with Mexico? And those are just the questions primarily reserved for fresh fish—which, let’s face it, is a budget luxury for many of us.
Canned fish is far more accessible for more eaters, which is why, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in 2015 Americans ate about 3.7 pounds of it per person. Properly stored and unopened, a can of fish has a shelf life lasting from three to eight years, making it a food bank mainstay.
Generally speaking, canned fish is dramatically less expensive than fresh. And it retains the health benefits: According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database, canned fish has roughly the same nutritional value as fresh.
These might all be reasons why, in the US today, canned tuna is the second most popular seafood of all, ranking just behind shrimp.
We eat about 1 billion pounds of it a year, according to the National Fisheries Institute. Most of that is consumed in the form of a sandwich (52%), at lunch (83%), and by people living in households with children (2:1).
There are only two foods getting more shelf space in the American grocery store than tuna: coffee and sugar.
In recent years, canned tuna consumption has actually declined somewhat in the US, a shift that’s likely linked to consumer concerns about issues like overfishing and dolphin bycatch. It is evident that our seafood anxieties are spreading from fresh sources to canned, even while we still rely on canned tuna as a convenient and accessible protein source.
So what’s worrisome about canned tuna?
That’s a generalized question without an easy answer, linked to changes in tuna fishing in both the US and abroad over the last 60 years or so.
The West Coast of the US was once the Tuna Capital of the World, with San Diego fishing families playing a significant role. Prior to the 1950s, the West Coast catch was primarily line-caught with long poles, and processing occurred at canneries dotted up and down the coast, including several on the San Diego Bay waterfront, spanning from Laurel Street to Barrio Logan.
But stiff foreign competition in the 1950s led many, if not most, West Coast fishermen to adopt new practices, converting their boats for purse-seine fishing, a method in which large nylon nets corral whole schools of tuna—and the dolphins and porpoises that swim alongside them. In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed, an important step toward protecting bycatch species that also contributed to the decline in the US tuna fishing industry, including those in San Diego and along the West Coast.
Which brings us back to the can. Responding to US fishing regulations and eager to preserve a way of life, some US tuna fishermen returned to older, more sustainable fishing practices, like hand-lines, hand-operated poles and lines, and trolling lines. These are now the favored methods endorsed by organizations dedicated to sustainability and a healthy ocean environment, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.
You may come across “dolphin safe” or “wild caught”labels. “Dolphin safe” dates to 1990, ranking it among the oldest labels on the tuna can. But in recent years, some environmental organizations have raised concerns about the label, claiming that the verification procedures behind the label are neither universal nor independent.
The Mexican tuna fishing industry has alleged the label is a form of protectionism. And NOAA has acknowledged there is room for concern regarding whether dolphin-safe standards are applied in a consistent way across all fisheries.
As for “wild caught,” with the exception of an extremely small farmed population of Pacific yellowtail and a slightly larger farmed population of bluefin (farmed in an attempt to save the species from extinction), all tuna is wild-caught—which makes the label “wild caught” seem like feel-good marketing.
What’s that mean for you? Apply a dose of healthy skepticism when scrutinizing the tuna can. And then do your homework by consulting websites like FishWatch to learn more about the fisheries and species in question.
While dolphin-safe labeling is considered by some to be borderline meaningless due to its ubiquity, other criteria to consider when ranking canned tuna’s sustainability features include the species of the fish and the fishery’s’ country of origin.
Together, fishing method, tuna species, and fishery location form the trifecta of information conscientious consumers should strive to know about their canned tuna.
How will you know? It’s on the can. And if it’s not, walk away. Brands that are making eco-conscious choices don’t try to hide it.
How to Read a Tuna Can
Species: Albacore, yellowfin, skipjack and tongol are the most common species found in the can. Skipjack (commonly labeled “light tuna”) is the most abundant in the ocean. Pacific and Atlantic yellowfin (“light meat”) are above or near their target population levels, respectively, according to FishWatch. However, tongol, also known as longtail tuna, is a small species found in the Indo-Pacific where fisheries management is poor.
Country of Origin: Designates where the fish was caught. Fishermen operating in US waters must follow US regulations, which are among the strictest in the world.
Product of: Designates where the tuna was processed. To support the US fishing and canning industry, choose USA.
Fishing Method: For fisheries outside the US, look for “hand line,” “pole-caught,” “troll” or “pole- and troll-caught.” “No long lines” is an ocean-safe designation. At minimum, “FAD-free” or “free school caught” is a better choice than anything marked simply “sustainably caught,” which asks you to take the brand’s word for it.
Certifications: Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is recognized as the gold standard—look for a blue-and-white logo with a fish and a check mark. “Turtle safe” is usually only found on brands sourcing pole- or troll-caught tuna. “Ocean Wise” means the fishery in which the tuna was harvested conforms to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.