March 24, 2017 — For the last 20 years, Americans have been having a conversation about sustainable seafood that was largely focused on fish purchased at restaurants or fresh seafood counters. Armed with seafood guides, thoughtful customers were encouraged to pose questions about where their fish was caught and what type of gear was used — questions that are far trickier to pose in front of a wall of canned tuna in the middle of a supermarket.
While tuna poke may be winning over American palates today, our consumption of fresh tuna is still dwarfed by our collective appetite for the canned stuff. According to the National Fisheries Institute, Americans ate more than 700 million pounds of canned tuna in 2015. That’s 2.2 pounds per person, enough to keep it firmly among the top three seafood items Americans consume, a ranking held for more than a decade.
Unlike the sustainability conversations we tend to have over farmed vs. wild salmon — or on issues like bycatch, mangrove destruction or human slavery that swirl around shrimp — the hand-wringing over canned tuna has largely been focused on contaminants like mercury, rather than fishing methods or the health of fish stocks.
A handful of retailers are about to change that.
Last Wednesday Whole Foods Market announced that by January 2018, all canned tuna sold in its stores or used in its prepared foods departments will be sourced from fisheries that use only pole-and-line, troll or handline catch methods that eliminate bycatch (accidental harvest of other fish, birds or mammals) because fishermen are catching tuna one at a time.
The new Whole Foods’ policy also requires canned tuna products to come from fisheries that are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or are sourced from fisheries rated green (best choice) or yellow (good alternative) by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and The Safina Center. And Whole Foods has included a traceability requirement as well.