Your little can of tuna is faced with some weighty issues. The next time you're at the supermarket choosing which brand to buy, you might want answers to how and where the fish was caught, if the fishing method destroyed other sea life, and how healthy the ocean tuna stocks are to warrant the magnitude of fishing.
Some answers, such as how the fish are caught, might be printed right on the label (a good sign). Another useful source of information is the recently released tuna shopping guide from Greenpeace. The environmental campaigning organization ranks 14 national and private label US brands and you might be surprised to learn that the three largest — StarKist, Bumble Bee, and Chicken of the Sea, which together account for about 75 percent of the US market — all score at the bottom of the list. Why? Destructive fishing methods and inadequate policies to address sustainability and human welfare issues in the industry.
Greenpeace's Global Seafood Markets project leader Graham Forbes explains that the rankings aren't intended to dissuade consumers from eating canned tuna, an affordable and lean source of protein, but to highlight that some products are more ocean-friendly than others. The best choices in the ranking, coded "green" on the list, are Wild Planet, American Tuna, and Ocean Naturals. House brands from Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's ranked fourth and sixth, respectively, receiving second tier "yellow" ratings for some sourcing and transparency concerns.
For tuna fisheries, perhaps the most pressing issue is whether the fishing method harms other species (referred to as bycatch). Other problems include overfishing, impact on ocean ecosystems, and poor working conditions (in the worst cases, there are human rights violations and slave labor). Because of the difficulty regulating fishing vessels and managing tuna stocks in waters as vast as the western and central Pacific Ocean, where most of the tuna sold in the United States comes from, the industry is "ripe for abuse," says Forbes.
According to Greenpeace, the fishing methods most damaging to other marine life are conventional longlines, where thousands of baited hooks hang from fishing lines that run for miles, and purse seines (giant drawstring nets) with fish aggregating devices (FADs) that end up attracting other species. It is estimated, says Forbes, that "up to 35 percent of the longline catch will be non-target species," including sea turtles, seabirds, sharks, and rays. Dolphin bycatch was substantially reduced by protection regulations in 1990.
Pole (or pole and line) and troll fishing (boat-towed lines with lures) are more selective practices with minimal bycatch. These are the methods used for brands such as Wild Planet (and its Sustainable Seas line), American Tuna, Pole & Line, Henry & Lisa's, and Whole Foods Market 365 Everyday Value. It says so right on the can.
Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, in Monterey, Calif., says that unlike Greenpeace, "We assess the actual fisheries and don't comment on what brand is better than the other." Seafood Watch (www.sea
foodwatch.org) rates hundreds of seafood varieties as "Best Choice," "Good Alternative," or "Avoid." Its good options for tuna include albacore caught by troll or pole in the US North Pacific, South Pacific, and North Atlantic, and skipjack caught using FAD-free purse seines in the east Pacific and western and central Pacific. Transparency is important, says Kemmerly. "If the company's not putting the information on the can, it's hard for consumers to make ocean responsible choices."
Some brands, including American Tuna, Crown Prince, Pole & Line, and Bumble Bee's Wild Selections line, apply for Marine Stewardship Council certification. The small, blue MSC eco-label is one way consumers can be assured that the product meets certain standards for sustainable fishing and seafood traceability.
To feed the US demand for tuna, which despite falling consumption levels is still a sizable market, the big three brands inevitably rely on their suppliers' large-scale (and more destructive) fishing gears. "Troll-pole [fishing] is not going to sustain the global appetite for tuna," says Kemmerly, but, she adds, "There are ways to use these gears that minimize bycatch."
Each of the big three brands is a founding member of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation and signed onto conservation measures. These include, per their stated sustainability policies, "science-based initiatives to support the long-term sustainability of tuna stocks," reduction of bycatch, dolphin-safe policies, and the prohibition of shark finning (which means retaining fins but discarding the carcasses at sea).
In a statement, Bumble Bee Seafoods president and CEO Chris Lischewski faults Greenpeace's survey for bias as well as using "hype, emotion, and exaggeration."
Greenpeace based its rankings on publicly available information and surveys to evaluate company sustainability policies and commitment to ethical labor practices. Data on fish stocks and bycatch was also reviewed. Forbes says, "We know best practices and they're not using them."
Seafood Watch's Kemmerly, who sits on the ISSF Environmental Stakeholder Committee, explains that tuna supply chains are complex and involve many countries. "Definitely give the industry some credit. They're not sitting back and doing nothing," she says. "But Greenpeace and our red ratings have to keep the pressure on."
With Greenpeace's spotlight on the industry, the organization hopes consumers will shift to more environmentally and socially responsible brands.
That tuna is probably better for you too. Smaller, younger fish caught by pole and troll methods, particularly in colder Pacific waters, contain less mercury than larger, older fish, which are caught by other means. When the tuna is hand-packed and cooked without added liquids, the solid content and, therefore, the amount of protein, is higher and the healthful omega-3 fatty acids are retained.
As Kemmerly says, "What's in the can matters."
Tuna shopping guide
How does your brand stack up?
1. Wild Planet
2. American Tuna
3. Ocean Naturals
6. Skipjack Tuna
7. Chunk Light
8. Kirkland Signature
9. Market Pantry
10. Great Value
11. Chicken of the Sea
12. Bumble Bee
Lisa Zwirn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.