The cost of tuna

by Eli Penberthy

This article was originally published in July 2012

Fisherman and tuna

Fishermen hook albacore tuna off the coast of Oregon. Pacific Northwest pole-caught albacore is a sustainable choice.

If you buy canned or jarred tuna, you may have noticed prices have climbed steadily for several years. The bad news is that more price hikes may be coming.

We wanted to know why — what factors are responsible. Here’s what we found.

Increased prices depend on the species of tuna and supply. Price spikes for Pacific Northwest (PNW) pole-caught albacore — the most sustainable tuna available and a PCC favorite — are due in part to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that incapacitated the Japanese fishing industry and increased demand for West Coast fish. Canadian albacore producers ran out of inventory by the 2011 season and when fishing resumed, dock prices jumped 50 to 60 percent.

The good news is the PNW pole-caught canned and jarred albacore at PCC is from a healthy fishery and not harvested with destructive methods, unlike other tuna globally. But experts say smaller catches and rising prices are permanent for most tuna — including albacore caught elsewhere — because of larger, systemic problems of overfishing, destructive fishing methods, and poor management. Many tuna caught around the world are in the “avoid” category established by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.

Longlines, purse seines, FADs

Albacore, if not pole-caught along the West Coast, mostly is caught with longlines that can stretch 50 miles and hook sea turtles, sharks and seabirds that are attracted to the bait. Hundreds of thousands of these animals are killed every year by tuna longlines.

Internationally, several agencies make management recommendations, but few rules are in place. Albacore catches have increased greatly in the Mediterranean without a thorough population assessment. Catches in the Indian Ocean also may not be sustainable at current catch levels.

Another example is skipjack tuna, the smallest species. PCC sells skipjack that’s pole-caught. But skipjack often are caught with giant nets called purse seines in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Skipjack school with threatened young bigeye or yellowfin tuna, which often end up in the nets too, along with sharks, rays, turtles and other fish.

Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) make the problem worse by creating even more “bycatch.” For every 1,000 pounds of skipjack caught this way, between 50 and 100 pounds of sharks, marlin, rays, mahi mahi and other animals are killed and thrown overboard.

“Between 20 and 25 percent of the ‘skipjack’ that’s caught isn’t actually skipjack at all, but rather juvenile bigeye and yellowfin,” says Greenpeace USA’s Casson Trenor, who says the issue is critical because juvenile bigeye in the Pacific are dangerously depleted. When FADs are used with purse seines, the catch of juvenile bigeye and yellowfin increases eightfold. It’s estimated that if FADs were eliminated globally, there would be an additional 1 to 2 billion pounds of bigeye and yellowfin.

Global catches for all tuna species dropped 25 percent last year compared to averages — but this may be good. The decrease relates to a three-month closure of fisheries that use FADs. “It’s not bad to have smaller catches if due to restricting destructive fishing,” says Bill Carvalho, founder of Wild Planet Foods. “When it comes to who is responsible for unsustainable tuna harvests, we must look squarely at the United States. The focus on cheap tuna offered at two cans for $1 has driven canned tuna companies to find ways of making it cheaper and cheaper to the damage of the ecosystem.”

The brand matters

Greenpeace USA is one organization fighting to reform the canned tuna industry. In September it launched an inflatable airship in La Jolla, Calif., headquarters of Chicken of the Sea, one of the largest tuna companies. Chicken of the Sea uses FADs, enormous purse seines and longlines. The airship had a cartoon mermaid with a bloody fish impaled on her trident and read, “Chicken of the Sea: Carnage in a Tuna Can.”

Greenpeace’s campaign aims to end destructive fishing methods and fishing in areas outside the territorial waters of Pacific island nations. These waters don’t belong to any particular state, so boats from the United States, Spain and Taiwan fish in the pockets without quotas or access fees. The tuna-based economies of those Pacific islands suffer as a result. So far some U.K. and Italian grocers have pledged not to carry unsustainable tuna.

Here in the United States, brands such as Wild Planet and Sweet Creek have made sustainability the basis of their businesses from the beginning and are looking to further that mission. Wild Planet is working with eight fisheries in the North and South Pacific, South Atlantic and Indian oceans and will incentivize fishermen to convert to 100-percent troll/pole and line and hand-line techniques to stop destructive methods.

Sweet Creek’s Paul Fuller says he’ll sell PNW pole-caught albacore only if it remains sustainable. He has cut costs by getting more meat from each fish and with more efficient packaging, but is unsure what the future holds.

Wild Planet is encouraging consumers to eat lower on the food chain by choosing anchovies and sardines occasionally. Its Pacific sardines are popular and it soon will introduce anchovies from Peru.

Most Peruvian anchovies are ground into fishmeal for farmed fish and pigs, creating a net loss of protein. It takes 4½ pounds of anchovies to produce a pound of fishmeal and about 5 pounds of fishmeal to produce a pound of bacon. Carvalho asks, “isn’t it a better use of limited resources — and healthier — just to eat the fish?”

Carvalho says consumers need to stop seeing tuna as a cheap fish and value it as a treasured super-food. “Retailers and major brands can no longer senselessly promote tuna as though it were inexhaustible.”

Read other seafood-related articles in this issue, including:

Also in this issue

Letters to the editor, July 2012

Customer service, Healthier body care, Fukushima radioactivity, and more

Water out of fish: are we overfishing our oceans?

The histrionic debate over whether fish stocks are healthy or on the verge of collapse has consumers lost at sea. The two most prominent scientists in the controversy stand on opposite shores.

Soil & Sea: reports from our producers

Large crops of tree fruit, including cherries, are in store this summer — if there's enough labor to get the fruit off the trees! It's also looking to be a good season for Alaskan wild salmon and PNW pole-caught albacore.