Plenty more fish in the sea?
Not at the current rate of unsustainable fishing, say campaigners. Jane Turner asks whether there is too high a price to pay for the tinned tuna in your sandwich.
A food cupboard staple for many people in the UK, we are the second biggest
consumers of tinned tuna after the USA, and so we can have a big impact on its
sustainability. Obviously the biggest impact we can make is to stop eating tuna
altogether. This step would also address the animal rights issues of eating
fish and we explore this in more detail below.
At the very least though, we could cut down our consumption of it. Greenpeace
says that a 50% cut in tuna fishing is the only way to put it on a long-term
sustainable footing in some regions.
But if we are to continue eating tinned tuna then we must choose very carefully
and only buy tuna species that are both plentiful and caught in a sustainable
The state of tuna stocks
There are five commercially fished species of tuna albacore, bigeye,
bluefin, skipjack and yellowfin. Stocks of them all are under pressure but bigeye
is listed as vulnerable, whilst bluefin is critically endangered. According
to the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) we should avoid eating bluefin and
bigeye tuna. Stocks of yellowfin are in serious decline.
The vast majority of tinned tuna is skipjack tuna which are in better shape
than most other tuna species, but they are mostly caught using purse seines
and fish aggregation devices (FADs). This method threatens bigeye and yellowfin
tuna stocks because juveniles of these species are caught as bycatch.
According to the MCS, albacore from the south Atlantic and south Pacific, skipjack
and yellowfin from the Pacific and Atlantic and skipjack from the Indian Oceans,
are currently being fished at sustainable levels. They recommend you increase
the sustainability of the tuna you eat from these areas by choosing line (pole
and line or handline) or troll-caught.
How tuna is caught
The vast majority of tuna is caught by large commercial fishing vessels using
one of two methods: long-line fishing and purse seining. Both methods produce
bycatch in large numbers.
This method involves releasing extremely long fishing lines some of
them long enough to stretch from London to Brighton to which are attached
shorter lines and thousands of baited hooks. Its effective but not selective
and can end up catching other species, such as seabirds, sharks and turtles
that go after the bait in shallow waters.
Long-lines, which are made of non-biodegradable monofilaments, are often lost
and can drift at sea indefinitely, snagging, entangling, and killing marine
life for decades after they ceased to be used by fishing vessels.
Purse seining involves fish being encircled by a large wall of
net, which is then brought together to retain the fish by using a line at the
bottom that enables the net to be closed like a purse. This method can be highly
specific, with little bycatch when targeting adult schools of one species, but
70 per cent of tuna fishing is done using fish aggregation devices (FADS) and
a tenth of everything caught in this way is unwanted bycatch of juvenile tuna
and other marine life. FADS are floating devices around which tuna and other
large fish instinctively aggregate in vast numbers.
Greenpeace thinks that the use of FADs by purse seiners should be banned.
Pole and line/trolling
Pole and line fishing, or bait-boat fishing, is the oldest fishing method.
Used by local fishermen and sport fishers, it causes far less harm to the environment
than commercial methods do. Trolling is a fishing method in which five or more
baited lines are towed behind a slowly moving vessel. Both methods are very
selective because only fish of a certain size can be caught, leaving juveniles
to grow to spawning age and replenish the stock in the future. They also eliminate
the problem of bycatch.
The MSC and the MCS
Two easily-confused organisations campaigning for sustainable seafood are the
MSC and the MCS.
The MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) is an international certification
and ecolabelling program for sustainable seafood. It was set up by Unilever
and WWF in 1996 in response to the collapse of the Grand Banks fisheries, the
once-huge reserves of cod off Newfoundland. The MSC has developed standards
for sustainable fishing and seafood traceability. Both standards are based on
independent third-party assessments by accredited certifiers. It claims to meet
the worlds toughest best practice criteria and is helping to transform
global seafood markets. Look for the blue MSC ecolabel when shopping or eating
The MCS (Marine Conservation Society) is a UK-based charity which champions
the need for marine wildlife protection, sustainable fisheries and clean seas
and beaches. Its many successes and campaigns to date include the introduction
of a Marine Act to better protect UK seas and marine life (www.marinereservesnow.org.uk),
and influencing sustainable seafood choices by major retailers and consumers
through the Good Fish Guide (see Links). MCS also does surveys of the sustainability
of supermarkets seafood policies. See www.mcsuk.org
for the latest survey in 2009 which the Co-op topped. It has also brought together
thousands of volunteers in Beachwatch to clean UK beaches of litter.
Which tuna species to buy
The Marine Conservation Society has produced a pocket good fish guide which
lists fish to eat and fish to avoid and covers 48 species of fish.
The best choice for tuna in their opinion is MSC-certified albacore tuna which
is caught pole and line. It is currently sold in tins by Morrisons and Sainsburys
and jars by Waitrose but it is quite hard to find and more expensive. In our
shop survey we could only find Sainsburys MSC tuna.
However, Greenpeace and the MSC dispute the sustainability of albacore stocks
in the Northern Pacific which is where some of the MSC albacore comes from.
Pole and line skipjack tuna from west or central Pacific or the Maldives is
listed as next best by the Marine Conservation Society.
Pole and line caught skipjack tuna is the only species recommended by Greenpeace
because it says that stocks of this species are the healthiest: For skipjack
the fishing effort is still at sustainable levels in all oceans, problems in
this fishery are associated with the fishing technique. Pole and line is a selective
and sustainable way of catching this fish which is why Greenpeace recommends
the pole and line caught skipjack as a better choice.
So look for either:
the MSC label or
pole and line skipjack
If there is no information on the tin, dont buy it.
Sustainability of tinned tuna brands
Greenpeace surveyed the main retailers and brands of tinned tuna in June 2009.
They looked at the information given on the tins, the impact of how the fish
were caught and the companys overall sourcing policies. The two biggest
tinned tuna companies, John West and Princes, who have the power to make a real
difference if they choose to, were at the bottom of the table.
Although Fish4Ever were not included in the survey they are recommended by
Greenpeace for selling pole and line caught tuna.
Tesco and John West have said that there is not enough volume of pole and line
caught tuna to satisfy the demand for tuna. Whilst this is undoubtedly the case
at the moment, Greenpeace says that if there is a demand from retailers and
consumers for pole and line then fishing fleets and fishermen will change their
catching methods to meet that demand. Clearly that is what Sainsburys,
M&S and Waitrose think too.
Progress at John Worst?
Since Greenpeaces league table was published, they have had meetings
with John West who have now published a seafood sustainability policy. It contains
strong commitments against shark-finning, and for selective fishing methods
to reduce bycatch and clear actions against companies engaged in illegal fishing
activity. There is also some support for protected areas, known as marine reserves.
At the moment John West gives no information on its tins except for saying
it is dolphin-friendly, but says all cans will display information
on the species and fishing ground within 2010.
John West is the only company in this report not to sell any MSC-certified
fish, tinned or fresh.
Greenpeace acknowledge the policy as a good step forward but with a long way
still to go. It says that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And it
remains to be seen whether these commitments will result in real changes in
What it says on the tins
Clear labelling is the only way that a consumer can make an informed choice
of product. But what the companies say about their sourcing of tuna is not always
reflected in the labelling on their tins. For example, M&S has one of the
best policies but has very little labelling on its tins whilst the Co-op tins
dont say if the tuna is pole and line caught. On the other hand, the Co-op
had the most information about its tuna sourcing policy of all the supermarkets
Best practice in tuna labelling according to Fish4Ever:
Companies should say where and how their fish is caught, not just where
it has been packed (not just produced/ made in e.g. Thailand).
Tuna should no longer be sold under the generic term tuna
but as the specific species packed in the tin eg. skipjack or albacore.
Companies should stop using the term dolphin-friendly/safe.
The best brands in terms of labelling are Fish4Ever, Sainsburys and all
the MSC brands (Sainsburys, Waitrose, Morrisons).
Dolphin-friendly,a red herring?
The use of dolphin-friendly logos on tinned tuna is somewhat of a red herring.
In the UK where over 95% of canned tuna is actually skipjack, the dolphin-friendly
logo is of little relevance because skipjack tuna do not swim with dolphins
and so skipjack are naturally dolphin-safe. It is only yellowfin
tuna in the Eastern Pacific Ocean that swim with schools of dolphins and this
makes up less than 5% of the total tuna catch.(3) The fishing method there has
been changed because of a successful consumer boycott campaign by the US Earth
Island Institute in 1988. As a result, most tuna companies adopted Earth Island
Institute dolphin-safe standards in 1990.
It was a massive victory for dolphins at the time but the dolphin-friendly
fishing methods that were adopted have an impact on other sealife. The tuna
may have been fished without catching dolphins but it may come from overexploited
tuna stocks or have been caught by methods which kill turtles, sharks and seabirds
such as purse seining or using fish aggregation devices (FADS). It has been
estimated that saving one dolphin, by using FADS, costs 16,000 smaller or juvenile
tuna, 380 mahimahi, 190 wahoo, 20 sharks and rays, 1200 triggerfish and other
small fish, one marlin and other animals.(3)
So dont rely on this label as an indicator of sustainability.
According to Fish4Ever, which is Earth Island Institue approved but does not
use the logo on its tins, companies should stop using the term dolphin-friendly/safe.
It has caused a great deal of confusion as it suggests that the only concern
with tuna is dolphin by-catch, which is, in fact, hardly an issue at all. On
the other hand, total stock levels, impact on other endangered species, impact
of by-catch and discard are all major conservation concerns with tuna. It will
be launching the greatdolphinfriendlyswindle.com
website to highlight this fact.
Virtually all the companies in this report, apart from Fish4Ever and M&S,
say on their tins that they are dolphin-friendly or dolphin-safe. And for the
four companies with the worst labelling ASDA, John West, Princes and
Tesco this is the only labelling on their tins.
Bluefin ban rejected
The Atlantic bluefin tuna can reach over four metres in length and average
around 250kg in weight. When chasing prey they travel at speeds that can exceed
70 km/h. The bluefin tuna stock in the Mediterranean Sea is at serious risk
of collapse because of overfishing and illegal fishing. This is because of a
rapidly expanding market in recent years for sushi and sashimi, mainly in Japan,
but also increasingly in the United States and Europe. According to the European
Union Commission, bluefin tuna stocks alone have fallen by 85 per cent since
Bluefin tuna are considered a highly valued delicacy, and a fully grown tuna
can command up to £60,000 at market. But most consumers wont come
across bluefin tuna because it is essentially an elite sushi or high-level restaurant
product (most basic sushi uses yellowfin). You cant buy bluefin tuna in
Hopes were raised for the bluefin when a proposal was tabled for this species
to be listed as endangered at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade
in Endangered Species (CITES) which took place 13-25th March of this year. The
governments considered putting Atlantic bluefin tuna on Appendix I of the Convention
the highest level of protection under its appendix system, which would
ban all international commercial trade.
Unfortunately the ban was defeated by countries including Japan (which imports
about 80% of the total bluefin catch) and Canada. 72 out of 129 CITES members
voted against the trade ban, 43 voted in favour, with 14 abstentions.
The EU wanted a years delay in the bans implementation but this
amendment was defeated. EU nations had to abstain on the second vote for an
immediate ban as delegates did not have the authority from their governments
to vote for it. The EU has to vote as a bloc in these negotiations, and nations
with active tuna fleets such as France, Italy and Spain had been unwilling to
support an outright, immediate ban.
The Principality of Monaco the CITES member country that submitted the
proposal for a CITES Appendix I listing of the species last year became
the first country in the world to be entirely bluefin tuna free. WWF is urging
other countries to follow suit.
Greenpeace has launched an online pledge in the UK to boycott bluefin tuna
and those that sell it, like sushi restaurant Nobu. Sign up at www.greenpeace.org.uk/tunapledge.
Tuna is mostly fished by fleets operated by companies from industrial fishing
nations of the North Japan, EU, Taiwan, Korea and China.(2) They fish
for tuna in developing countries coastal waters. The local coastal communities
derive very little economic or social benefits from the exploitation of their
tuna resources. Local fishermen are put out of work whilst a valuable source
of protein is taken away from them. The coastal communities only receive about
5-6% of this multi-billion dollar industry.(2)
But the pole and line method of fishing has been used for generations by local
fishermen and is well suited to benefit local communities. For example, the
Maldives only allows limited access to foreign fleets and has 1,000 pole and
line fishing boats employing 20,000 fishermen with all the attendant support
roles such as boat building and tuna processing. Locally caught tuna provides
most of the countrys export earnings and much needed employment.(1)
Greenpeace is urging retailers to source their tuna from local pole and line
fisheries as the most sustainable and equitable option for tinned tuna.(1) Preferably
it should be caught and processed by local fishermen to keep even more of the
revenue in the country. Because supplies of pole and line skipjack and albacore
are limited, retailers should seek out local fishermen willing to develop pole
and line operations and guarantee that they will buy their catch.(1)
One of Fish4Evers principles is that it will seek out local fishing and
local production and it even pays a 10% fair fish premium for skipjack
tuna from the Maldives because of sustainability and ethical working practices.
Sustainable but dead
Clearly the best way to ensure sustainability of tuna stocks is to stop fishing
altogether. This is of course the solution if you believe, as many of our readers
do, that fish have a right to life and should not be killed. And its not
just the tuna that win out if we stop eating fish, but all the bycatch wildlife
You may be able to justify the killing of an animal on your behalf, satisfied
that it has had a relatively good quality of life swimming about freely in the
sea but, according to the Vegetarian Society, although fish may not appear as
cute and cuddly as young lambs, they do feel pain and they do suffer from fear
and psychological distress in the same way as mammals. You cant be let
off the hook by thinking that fish are just swimming vegetables.
According to PETA, studies have also shown that fish are smart, have personalities,
can use tools, have impressive long-term memories and sophisticated social structures.(5)
The basic act of removing a fish from water causes severe pain and distress,
even before the killing begins. Wild caught fish, when hauled up from the depths,
undergo excruciating decompression. Frequently, the intense internal pressure
ruptures the swim bladder, while the eyes pop out and the oesophagus and stomach
can be pushed out through the animals mouth.(6)
Furthermore, the slaughter regulations, which offer some level of protection
to other farmed animals, still do not apply to fish. The cruelty and suffering
involved in slaughtering fish is addressed in the following book extract entitled
No fish gets a good death.
See Links for loads more information about fishing and animal rights.
No fish gets a good death
An extract from a new book called Eating Animals by Jonathan
A longline looks something like a telephone line running through the
water suspended by buoys rather than poles. At periodic intervals along this
main line, smaller branch lines are strung each branch line
bristling with hooks. Now picture not just one of these multihook longlines,
but dozens or hundreds deployed one after the other by a single boat. And, of
course, there is not one boat deploying longlines, but dozens, hundreds, or
even thousands in the largest commercial fleets.
Longlines today can reach 75 miles thats enough line to cross
the Channel more than three times. And longlines dont kill just their
target species, but 145 others as well. One study found that
roughly 4.5 million sea animals are killed by longline fishing every year, including
roughly 3.3 million sharks, 1 million marlins, 60,000 sea turtles, 75,000 albatross
and 20,000 dolphins and whales.
On longlines the deaths animals face are generally slow. Some are simply held
there and die only when removed from the lines. Some die from the injury caused
by the hook in their mouths or by trying to get away. Some are unable to escape
attack by predators.
Purse seines are the main technology used for catching tuna. A net wall is
deployed around a school of target fish, and once the school is encircled, the
bottom of the net is pulled together as if the fishers were tugging on a giant
purse string. The trapped target fish and any other creatures in the vicinity
are then winched together and hauled on to the deck. Fish tangled in the net
may be slowly pulled apart in the process. Most of these sea animals, though,
die on the ship, where they will slowly suffocate or have their gills cut while
conscious. In some cases, the fish are tossed onto ice, which can actually prolong
Although one can realistically expect that at least some percentage of cows
and pigs are slaughtered with speed and care, no fish gets a good death. Not
a single one. You never have to wonder if the fish on your plate had to suffer.
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, Hamish Hamilton, £20
MW Brands plc is a private, equity-funded French seafood company whose
primary product is tuna. It was formed in 2006 when it bought John West from
Heinz. It owns industrial tuna fishing boats, all purse seiners.(1) John West
is the only company in this report to not sell any MSC-certified fish.
Princes corned beef was the target of a Greenpeace campaign because
it bought beef from Brazilian cattle companies involved in deforestation of
the Amazon. The campaign was successful within four months when the cattle companies
committed to zero deforestation.
Princes is owned by the giant Japanese trading company Mitsubishi Corp which
also part owns Mitsubishi cars and a Spanish company which farms tuna. It is
also actively involved in trying to develop new fossil fuel resources
such as oil sands and it owns part of a uranium mine in Australia.(2)
Fish4Ever is an independent seafood company that only sells sustainable
tinned fish. It sources its fish from local fleets. 73% of its products are
MSC certified. The Fish4Ever tuna range (including 3 tunas yellowfin,
albacore and skipjack) is available from independent shops and online supermarkets,
and a limited selection is available from ASDA (skipjack and yellowfin). The
full range includes 20 different fish products. Its website
has a list of stockists and contains loads of information on all aspects of
sustainable fishing including a Trace your fish facility which shows
where and how its various products have been caught. It is owned by Organico,
a company that sells mainly organic mediterranean foods such as pasta and olives.
The Co-operative topped a 2009 survey of supermarkets seafood
sustainability policies carried out by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS).
The Co-op sells none of the 69 fish in the MCSs fish to avoid
list, and stocks the highest percentage of its fish to buy list.
The Co-op and Marine Conservation Society (MCS) campaigned successfully for
the Marine Act which means that the UK Government now has a statutory duty to
introduce a network of marine conservation zones by 2012.
It is not listed as a Best Buy because whilst it says that 60% of its tinned
tuna is pole and line skipjack, it doesnt say on its tins how the tuna
is caught so you cant be sure that the tin you are buying is sustainable.
1 MW Brands website www.mwbrands.com/fleet, 11/3/10 2 Mitsubsihi
Corp Annual Report 2009
Vegetarian Society Fish
PETA - Fishing Hurts
1 'Retailers guide to sustainable and equitable pole and line skipjack',
Greenpeace, April 2009
2 'Taking tuna out of the can', Greenpeace, January 2009
3 Dolphin friendly - what does it mean, Fish4Ever website, 4/3/10
4 Greenpeace website March 2010
6 Vegetarian Society, www.vegsoc.org/fish/facts1.html