Pluck a can of tuna off a supermarket shelf and you’re engaging in a seemingly mundane act akin, you might think, to choosing your sock color. But that tuna can represents more than a quick, nutritious, affordable meal. It’s also a symbol of the complexity of our food system — and our expectations of filling our bellies while inflicting no harm on the environment, interconnected species, or the people who farm and fish on our behalf.

The FoodPrint of Tuna

Sustainable is a word with squishy meanings. In the context of tuna, it can indicate that no more members of the Thunnini tribe were taken out of the oceans than can regenerate — assuring healthy stocks that will feed humans…for now.

But when we talk about the foodprint of tuna, we might also ask: Are there enough tuna left in the ocean to support other animals that rely on it for their dinner? Are there enough to balance populations of the fish tuna prey on? Are stocks of fish used as tuna bait healthy, too? Was there negligible by-catch of turtles, sharks, dolphins, and birds? How much fuel did a fishing boat use? Do workers receive fair wages for their own sustainable future? And if you consider your physical health a matter of sustainability, then mercury levels in tuna are also something to think about.

Given all of those considerations, can we call canned tuna sustainable? The answer is complicated and depends on what kind of tuna and how it was caught. And for every positive, there’s a tradeoff; and as Susan Jackson, president of International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) elaborates, “Mitigation measures that are good for one thing can be bad for another.” But there is good news and, thanks to governments, NGOs, foundations, and researchers working in tandem to improve tuna fisheries the world over, the news has the potential to get better.

Tuna Labels and Certifications

Eco-logos can help erase some confusion about what’s in your tuna can, if you know what they mean. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) offers the most rigorous 3rd party certification of fisheries available. Its logo is generally considered the gold standard of sustainability, signifying that fisheries have good stock numbers, low ecosystem impacts, and effective management along the supply chain. Fair Trade USA 3rd-party certifies that the fishermen and other humans behind a can of tuna “got a fair deal for their hard work,” according to their website.

canned tuna graphic label
Click here to learn more about seafood labels.

Other logos are more targeted, referring to the type of gear used to catch the tuna in your can, such as pole and line, FAD-free, or circle hook—generally, the gear is mentioned because its use is positive.  Still others tout what wasn’t harmed to bring you tuna, i.e., dolphin-safe and turtle-safe logos. Logos claiming tuna is “sustainably caught” or “responsibly caught” without indicating how that claim is backed up may not mean much. Finally, almost all tuna that ends up in a can starts out “wild,” making this claim superfluous.

Who’s Looking Out for Tuna?

Tuna occupy waters in open oceans and migrate great distances between them, crossing and re-crossing international boundaries, in and out of the Exclusive Economic Zones that exist within 200 nautical miles of a particular country’s coastline and allow a country to call a fish their own.

Because of this interconnectedness, the management of tuna fisheries is overseen by five Regional Fishing Management Organizations, or RFMOs, each made up of representatives from the countries with a stake in the particular fish caught in those particular waters. These RFMOs set catch limits and determine if a fishery needs to be closed to fishing in order to recover its stocks. From there, says Jackson, it’s up to individual countries to establish laws and policies that control what goes on.

Additionally, various organizations and consortiums work with governments, tuna vessel owners, tuna brand owners, retailers, and consumers to encourage them to make meaningful changes in management practices, based on scientific data collected from organizations like ISSF and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.

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