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.

We're sorry but the score table for this report has been removed because it is out of date.

The report includes:

  • ethical and environmental ratings for 13 brands of tinned tuna
  • Best Buy recommendations and price comparison of the brands
  • profiles of selected companies
  • how tuna is caught
  • the state of tuna stocks
  • which are the most sustainable brands
  • do the labels help the consumer?
  • taking fish from developing countries
  • the bluefin tuna situation
  • the animal rights angle


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...

Best Buys

as of May/June 2010

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

The most ethical option in terms of sustainability and animal rights is not to buy tuna so no brands are eligible for our Best Buys label.

However, if you are going to buy a tin, then best in this buyers' guide is Fish4Ever which is sold in ASDA or visit their website for stockists.

Do not buy John West. It scores well on the table opposite compared to the supermarkets because it has attracted fewer criticisms in other business areas such as genetic engineering. However, it comes bottom of Greenpeace's tuna league table.

Of the supermarkets, Waitrose is the better option because it scores higher on our table and all its tuna is either pole and line skipjack or MSC certified.
If you don't have a Waitrose near you, Sainsbury's just wins out over Marks & Spencer because its labelling is slightly better.

Note from the Price Comparison how the most ethical brands are cheaper or comparable to the unsustainable brands of John West and Princes.

to buy



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Published: May/June 2010 


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 way.




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.



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’s 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


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 world’s toughest best practice criteria and is helping to transform global seafood markets. Look for the blue MSC ecolabel when shopping or eating out.

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 Sainsbury’s and jars by Waitrose but it is quite hard to find and more expensive. In our shop survey we could only find Sainsbury’s 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, don’t 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 company’s 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 Sainsbury’s, M&S and Waitrose think too.


Greenpeace's Tuna League Table 2014 - see how they rate now.




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 don’t 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’ websites.

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, Sainsbury’s and all the MSC brands (Sainsbury’s, 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 don’t 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 the 1950s.

Bluefin tuna are considered a highly valued delicacy, and a fully grown tuna can command up to £60,000 at market. But most consumers won’t come across bluefin tuna because it is essentially an elite sushi or high-level restaurant product (most basic sushi uses yellowfin). You can’t buy bluefin tuna in tins.

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 year’s delay in the ban’s 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.




Unfair fish


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 country’s 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 Fish4Ever’s 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 it’s not just the tuna that win out if we stop eating fish, but all the bycatch wildlife as well.

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 can’t 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 animal’s 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 Safran Foer.

“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 – that’s enough line to cross the Channel more than three times. And longlines don’t 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 their deaths.

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. It did."


Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, Hamish Hamilton, £20





Company profiles


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 MCS’s ‘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 doesn’t say on its tins how the tuna is caught so you can’t be sure that the tin you are buying is sustainable.




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
5 www.fishinghurts.com, PETA
6 Vegetarian Society, www.vegsoc.org/fish/facts1.html

7 MW Brands website www.mwbrands.com/fleet, 11/3/10

8 Mitsubsihi Corp Annual Report 2009



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