At one point in our formative years, many of us were likely eyed by our classmates for stinking up the lunch room while chowing down on a tuna fish sandwich. If I knew then what I know now about just how fishy much of the tuna fisheries are that supply major canned tuna brands around the globe, my sandwich of choice may have been different.
Nowadays, tuna brands are trying to appeal to an adult audience, marketing tuna as a key ingredient in leading a healthier lifestyle. Well-known brand Clover Leaf has a Take 5 campaign that offers recipes with five ingredients that take five minutes to make. Quick meals with a tuna twist. The Gold Seal brand posted billboards of a tuna can with a tape measure around the middle insinuating that eating the fish will help you stay lean.
But it wasn’t until the sustainable seafood movement hit supermarkets that the health of the tuna itself came into question.
Like any product that comes from a renewable resource, you have to consider its health and the health of the environment from which it came if it’s going to have any benefit to anyone or anything in the long term. And that’s exactly what hasn’t happened with our global tuna stocks.
The tuna in your melts and salads is probably skipjack, yellowfin, or albacore. It could also be tongol or bigeye tuna, but that’s not as likely. If your can just says chunk light or flaked light tuna without specifying the species, you know it isn’t albacore, because that is commonly known as white tuna. These species may not go for over a 100 Gs at an auction like the prized bluefin, but they account for major sales in supermarkets around the globe.
Canned tuna has become so popular for one main reason: it’s cheap. But like most cheap commodities, it comes at a cost to someone or something. Many consumers would be unpleasantly surprised to know that, depending on their brand of choice, the costs of that tuna to our oceans and to the coastal peoples of lesser-developed nations are huge.
A survey by Greenpeace of 14 well-known canned tuna brands sold in Canada uncovered some unappetizing bits of information. Much of the tuna sold by major brands comes from declining tuna stocks or stocks being fished at far too high a rate. Skipjack, the most abundant tuna species, has even shown signs of stress in some areas.
Very little of the tuna on supermarket shelves comes from more selective fishing techniques where the fishery impacts are less on other species. Only two brands—Raincoast and Wild Planet—source all their tuna from more sustainable methods, while most source from methods that wreak havoc on ocean life, like longliners and purse seiners using fish aggregating devices that attract and trap various marine species. That dolphin-friendly logo doesn’t mean much to the sea turtles, sharks, birds, cetaceans, and other species that get drowned on hooks or scooped up in massive nets only to be thrown back overboard dead or dying. The costs to the ecosystem are severe.
And who will ultimately pay the price for tuna-less waters? Those who depend on the seas the most. As other tuna stocks diminished, foreign fleets have moved into the western and central Pacific Ocean where most of the canned tuna is now sourced. Island countries in this region have been robbed of their resources, and not paid fair returns for allowing these fleets to fish in their waters.
The companies certainly aren’t advertising that on their billboards.
My advice to a company like Clover Leaf, which incidentally was one of only two companies that didn’t respond to Greenpeace’s questionnaire, would be to take five and consider the true cost of canning ocean destruction. The company’s product may be cheaper than a more sustainable product but as the company holding the largest market share of canned seafood in Canada, they’re cheapening the whole tuna melt experience.
Without people asking questions about the sustainability and equitability of their products, no one is forced to give answers. To all the tuna lovers out there, the next time you’re strolling down the canned seafood aisle and stop in front of the tuna, remember that you might be getting more than you bargained for in certain brands, so ask yourself if the overall cost is worth it. Ask your favourite tuna brand to help you make a tuna-, ocean-, and people-friendly choice.
Visit www.greenpeace.ca/tunaranking to find out how your tuna brand ranks.
Sarah King is an oceans campaigner for Greenpeace Canada.