Ethical shopping guide to Tinned Tuna, from Ethical Consumer

Ethical shopping guide to Tinned Tuna, from Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

A highly prized catch, but at what cost?


The report includes:

  • Ethical and environmental ratings for 15 brands of tinned tuna
  • Best Buy recommendations and price comparison of the brands
  • Spotlight on John West and Princes
  • Should we trust the MSC certification?
  • Company behind the Brand: Fish4Ever

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Our ratings are live updated scores from our primary research database. They are based on primary and secondary research across 23 categories - 17 negative categories and 6 positive ones (Company Ethos and Product Sustainability). Find out more about our ethical ratings


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Best Buys

as of April 2017

As our ratings and research are constantly updated, it is possible that brand ratings on the score table may have changed since this report was written or brands may no longer appear.

Best in this product guide are:


Fish Tales

Reel Fish

Fish Tales and Reel Fish are available from Waitrose. Fish4Ever is available UK wide from Ocado (as is Reel Fish) and independent stores.

Of the supermarkets’ own-brand products, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose MSC certified tuna are the better options.

The most ethical option in terms of sustainability and animal rights is not to buy tuna. 


Do not buy John West. It scores well on our product table compared to most of the supermarkets because it has attracted fewer criticisms in other business areas such as factory farming and genetic engineering. However, it comes bottom of Greenpeace’s tuna league table, as does Princes.

to buy

Image: Reel Tuna


Image: Fish4Ever


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Last updated: April 2017








Related Content




Can I Buy an Ethical Can of Tuna?



Tuna is one of the Big Five that make up 60-80% of the UK’s seafood consumption. According to Greenpeace, the UK eats more tuna than any other country in the world, except the USA. 

John West canned tuna is the UK’s market leader, accounting for 23% of total UK sales in 2015/16. In second place is Princes canned tuna which accounts for 15% of sales.[1]

Tuna is a globally important source of food and, accordingly, one of the most commercially valuable fish. Global fishing of tuna has increased continuously from less than 0.6 million tonnes in 1950 to above 6 million tonnes in 2010.


Iamge: Tinned Tuna


Unfortunately, the fishing of tuna is not spared the many problems of the global fishing industry.






Environmental Concerns in Tuna Production



According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, in 2013 the main tuna stocks were more-or-less fully exploited (meaning there was no room for fishery expansion), some were overexploited (meaning that there was a risk of stock collapse), and very few were underexploited.

According to the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, of the total tuna catch in 2015, 76% came from stocks considered to be at ‘healthy’ levels. This percentage has been decreasing over the years reflecting the increasing pressure on tuna: in 2011, 94% of the catch had come from healthy stocks, followed by 86% in 2012, and 87% in 2013.


Not Just Tuna

Fishing for tuna involves methods that unnecessarily kill ‘non-target’, commercially-valueless species. A number of these are threatened with extinction, including species of sharks, turtles and marine birds.


Image: FADs

FADs and Turtles


Such fishing methods can also kill juvenile tuna that have not reached reproductive maturity or species of tuna that are overfished. This is because different species of tuna often swim in the same school and indiscriminate methods fail to differentiate between them.



MSC certification


The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international certification and ecolabeling programme for sustainable seafood. On our score table above we have awarded an extra positive mark for product sustainability to products that carry the MSC certification. 

See our longer article about the MSC called ‘The MSC: conservation or bluewash?’.  




Should I eat Fish?

Given the state of marine environments under the pressures of overfishing and pollution, many people argue that refraining from eating fish altogether may be one way to allow marine environments to be partially restored.

On the other hand, fish are estimated to account for 17% of protein consumption by humans which raises the question of how this amount could be replaced. Vegetarians and vegans would argue that the answer to this question is plant protein that is sustainably grown.

Apart from environmental considerations, there is also an ethical argument against eating fish grounded on considerations of animal rights and animal welfare.

The Vegetarian Society argues that fish are sentient beings capable of experiencing pain and distress. If you believe that the right to life extends to fish or that no sentient being should be made to suffer and experience pain for human benefit, then even the most environmentally sustainable method will not be acceptable.

Even tuna fished in artisanal ways of low environmental impact may be treated in ways that do not accord with people’s standards of the ethical treatment of animals. For example, large tuna hooked with a line may be brought to deck using massive metal hooks that dig deep into the flesh and then clubbed to death with repeated blows to the head.

In the Mediterranean, schools of tuna may be penned in nets for a very long time during which the fish are very stressed and gradually exhausted. When brought on deck they are bled to death by severing a large vein near their gills.




Human Rights Abuses in Tuna Supply Chains


Fishing vessels supplying tuna processors have been implicated in human trafficking; slavery; physical and psychological violence towards workers; degrading and unsafe working conditions; exhaustingly long working hours; and inadequate provision of nourishment, and living and sleeping quarters.

A Greenpeace South East Asia report, called ‘Turn the Tide’, published in December 2016, offers a stark case-study of human slavery aboard a Thai vessel catching tuna for the country’s multi-billion-dollar tuna canning and export sector.


Global Supply Chain

Buying cans of tuna in UK stores connects us as UK consumers to these complex, often hidden, global, supply chains. These can start from the messy, bloody deck of a Thai-owned fishing vessel crewed by immigrant workers from Burma and Cambodia, employed without legal papers. The chain passes through the clinical cleanliness of the cannery of a global industrial behemoth in Bangkok, to the logistics and transport web that links the seaports of the world.

From there, cans of tuna are moved to gigantic distribution centres in the UK and finally to a supermarket shelf. Tuna bought in a supermarket can link us directly to stories of environmental destruction and human suffering or to stories of environmental protection and human flourishing.

Our buying choices can promote one or the other but we need to be aware of these stories in order for our choices to be informed.




John West Tuna


As you can see from our score table above the market-leading brands are, unfortunately, not the ones whose policies and practices do the most to protect the environment and the employees in their supply chains.

The John West brand is owned by the Thai Union Group, a global company based in Thailand, which is the largest canned tuna producer and exporter in the world. It owns market-leading brands of seafood in the UK, Europe, the US and China, along with fishing vessels in Western Africa, tuna processing and canning facilities, can manufacturing factories, shrimp farms and fishmeal manufacturing facilities. 

The UK market leader, John West, does not score well in our ranking system, with an Ethiscore of 5.5 out of a possible 20. This is partly because of the shortcomings of its corporate policies and partly because of the criticisms received by its parent company the Thai Union Group. John West scores better than the supermarkets because, not being involved in product lines other than seafood, it does not receive the range and frequency of ethical criticisms that UK supermarkets do.

Thai Union produces about one-fifth of the world’s tuna products. According to Greenpeace’s 2016 Tuna League Table, 98% of the tuna it sells is caught using environmentally destructive methods. The company continues to source tuna from vessels that fish using purse seine nets in conjunction with Fish Aggregation Devices. This is despite public commitments by the company to achieve 100% sustainability in tuna sourcing by the end of 2016.

John West is, at the time of writing, the focus of a Greenpeace campaign which asks the major UK supermarkets to stop stocking the brand. Tesco announced in July 2016 that they had de-listed a number of John West lines, but not all, because they did not meet the same standards as their own-brand tuna.


Image: Not Just Tuna


Waitrose announced that all tuna sold in its stores would need to be caught by pole-and-line or be MSC-certified by the end of 2017. Greenpeace is now targeting Sainsbury’s because it has not made similar commitments.

An Associated Press investigation in 2015 and a Greenpeace report in 2016 both claimed that Thai Union was sourcing seafood from vessels on which human and labour rights abuses were perpetrated, including slavery, forced labour and the provision of degrading conditions of employment and living. The same vessels were alleged to be engaging in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU).

The wider issues within the Thai fishing industry are well documented. In 2015, the European Union threatened Thailand with an import ban on all fishing products originating in the country unless Thailand took decisive action against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which is often associated with labour abuses.

In the same year, the US State Department’s 2015 ‘Trafficking in Persons’ (TIP) report maintained Thailand at the bottom-ranked tier 3 level based on the inadequacies of its efforts comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.




Princes Tuna


Princes is owned by the Japanese conglomerate, Mitsubishi, whose industrial activities extend from automobiles to food, nuclear energy and semi-conductors.

Princes is also sourcing tuna caught in purse seine nets with large amounts of bycatch. According to Greenpeace’s Tuna League Table 2016, “only 25% of its tuna is pole-and-line or free-school-caught, despite its commitment to source 100% sustainable tuna by the end of 2014”.




Independent Tuna Brands


The best scoring brands in our ranking system are: Fish Tales, Fish4Ever and Reel Fish.

They are all small, independent companies which we consider to be providing consumers with products with a lower environmental impact. They were all awarded extra points for ‘Company Ethos’ because of their policies on sustainability, transparency, traceability and sourcing. 

These are companies that will only source tuna from small fleets of small fishing boats that use pole-and-line. 

They also claim to use local canneries and that the fish are not transported long distances in order to be processed. For example, Fish Tales disclose that for tuna caught in the Maldives it uses a cannery also based in the Maldives, except for situations when the capacity of that cannery is exceeded, in which case, it uses a cannery in Thailand. 

All firms disclose the fishing territories their fish is sourced from as well as the species of tuna. 

They have all been recommended by Greenpeace as #JustTuna brands that try to minimise the environmental impact of their activities and promote the wellbeing of the people involved in their supply chains. 

Fish Tales tuna products are all MSC-certified whereas Fish4Ever and Reel Fish Co do not carry the MSC logo.

Fish Tales sells skipjack tuna sourced from the MSC-certified fishery in the Maldives in the Indian Ocean which is the only fishery that has an MCS rating of ‘1’ (most recommended).

According to the MCS, when last assessed in 2014, the fishery stocks were found to be in a healthy state. Moreover, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission has implemented harvest control measures even though the stocks are healthy which may suggest that the fishery is well-managed although that is a controversial topic.

Fish4Ever and Reel Fish sell skipjack sourced from the eastern Atlantic off the coast of Portugal and West Africa, and from the Indian Ocean, which carries an MCS rating of ‘2’.




The Good Fish Guide


The Marine Conservation Society (MCS), not to be confused with the similarly named MSC, 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, and influencing sustainable seafood choices by major retailers and consumers through the ‘Good Fish Guide’ (free App on iPhone and android) 

According to the MCS, there are three main considerations when thinking about the environmental sustainability of canned tuna: the species of tuna, the fishing method and the fishing territory it was sourced from.


1) Species

According to the MCS’s ‘Good Fish Guide’, skipjack is “one of the best choices out of the commercially fished tuna species” as “stocks worldwide are still in fairly good shape”. However, the increasing amounts fished are becoming a cause for concern.

The next two most commercially important species of tuna for UK markets are yellowfin and albacore. Yellowfin, which is often found in cans and as fresh tuna steaks, has suffered from overfishing. It is illustrative that, in April 2016, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) announced that the Yellowfish fishery in the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, the first in the region to get the MSC logo in 2012, can no longer be considered sustainable and has suspended its certification.


Image;: Albacore Tuna

Albacore Tuna


The MCS ‘Good Fish Guide’ gives albacore tuna a ‘recommended’ rating of 2 (in a scale starting with ‘1’ being the most recommended fish to eat and ‘5’ being a fish to avoid) provided it is caught by pole-and-line or trolling. In the UK, albacore is not as widely available as skipjack and it commands a price premium.

The majority of canned tuna sold in supermarkets in the UK is skipjack tuna. Unfortunately, the market-leading brands, John West and Princes, do not consistently offer information on the species of tuna used, either on the labelling of their products or on their websites.


2) Fishing method

According to the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), in 2015, 64% of the tuna catch was made by purse seining, followed by long-line (12%), pole-and-line (9%), gillnets (4%) and other methods (11%).

The MCS notes that the sustainability of a species needs to be thought about alongside the method of fishing. 


Long-line fishing

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. It is not selective and can end up catching other species, such as seabirds, sharks and turtles that go after the bait.

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

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% of purse-seining 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. According to Greenpeace, even when skipjack tuna is targeted with conventional purse seine fishing with FADs, the catch can also be up to 20% baby bigeye and yellowfin tuna, caught before they’ve had a chance to breed. Greenpeace considers this method so destructive that it campaigns for it to be banned.

Pole and line

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. However, pole-and-line methods in the case of tuna may involve large amounts of fish bait used.


Image: Pole and Line Fishing

Line and Pole Method 


Greenpeace Australia strongly advises consumers to choose pole-and-line-caught tuna. Aside from the reduced bycatch, pole-and-line is a very labour intensive method which means more employment for local fishermen living in coastal communities and island states.

The larger fishing vessels employing large nets and long-lines come from nations that are often very far from the nations surrounding a fishing territory, and use sophisticated technology with little crew. This means that although the Pacific tuna industry has been valued at over $7 billion per year, most of the profits do not end up with the countries in whose waters the tuna is fished.

In the Pacific, which provides 60% of the world’s tuna, only a tiny fraction of the value stays in the local economy. Most developing coastal states cannot afford the expensive industrial vessels. For the price of a high-tech purse seine vessel, around twenty pole and line vessels can be bought which means more opportunities for local ownership.

John West and Princes fail to display on their labels the fishing method used.

3) Fishing territory

Fishing territory is important as fish of the same species may thrive in one territory with healthy stocks while the same species may be nearly depleted in a different territory. A striking example is that of the Western Indian Ocean where the activities of Somalian pirates had, at one stage, discouraged fishing and, as a consequence, the stocks of yellowfin tuna and other fish were healthy. As the activity of pirates declined, fishing vessels returned and the stocks are now reported to have declined significantly.

The MCS offers an illustration of how fishing method and fishing territory interact to affect their system of rating the sustainability of fish. Skipjack as a species ranges across this spectrum from ‘1’ to ‘5’ with the highest rating only awarded to skipjack caught by line-and-pole by certified fleets off the coast of the Maldives. In contrast, the same species caught by fixed nets or gill nets elsewhere in the Indian Ocean is given a red 5. When caught by pole-and-line, skipjack is given a green rating of 1 or 2 irrespective of the fishing territory.

Albacore tuna caught by pole-and-line or trolling in the Atlantic is given a rating of 2. 

For yellowfin tuna, the situation is more complicated. The MCS recommends yellowfin tuna caught in the Western and Central Pacific even if caught by long-lining or purse-seining (non-FAD associated) but advises to avoid yellowfin caught in the Atlantic and even more so in the Indian Ocean even if pole-and-line caught.

In making a decision about which tuna to buy, species, fishing method and fishing territory are clearly all of relevance. Brands and companies that do not disclose this information can be suspected of having something to hide and are therefore not a good choice.

To check the MCS fish ratings, see Good Fish Guide website. 




Company behind the brand

Fish 4 Ever is the canned fish brand of OrganiCo Realfoods. OrganiCo was founded in England in 1991. It specialises in organic Mediterranean produce from small, artisanal, traditional farmers and agricultural co-operatives. Fish 4 Ever was started in 2001.

The company sources fish from small, local fleets that preferably use labour-intensive methods of fishing that create and sustain local employment. The company also selects local canneries not far from where the fish are landed so that transport miles are reduced and the local economy keeps a larger share of the value chain.

The company refuses to source from long-distance, foreign-water fleets of industrial-sized vessels that remove fish and economic value from the territories they operate in. Land-based ingredients used in its canned fish such as olive oil are 100% organic.

Fish 4 Ever is an associate organisation of Sustainable Fish Cities and it has collaborated with environmental NGOs such as the Environmental Justice Foundation, the Slow Food Movement, the International Pole and Line Federation and the Marine Conservation Society.

See our Q&A with Fish4Ever. 


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If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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1. Mintel – Fish and Shellfish UK November 2016 



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