Tuna

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 15 tuna brands.

We also look at MSC certification, slavery on tuna fishing boats, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Fish4Ever and give our recommended buys.

About 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.

What to buy

What to look for when buying tuna:

  • Is it sustainably caught? The fishing industry is riddled with unsustainable methods, that lead to over fishing, destruction of habitats and indiscriminate fishing of unwanted species, that are then thrown, dead back into the sea. Look for fish that are caught using sustainable practices.

  • Is it local? Look for local fishmongers selling locally caught fish to cut down on food miles and put money back into the local economy. A fishmonger will often know how and where their fish is caught too, so make sure to ask check whether they source sustainably. 

  • Do you need it at all? The most sustainable - as well as most animal friendly - option is not to buy tuna at all. Consider substituting for a vegetable protein instead to ensure that you avoid environmentally unfriendly fishing practices.

Best Buys

Our Best Buys, based on ethiscore, are:

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

Recommended Buys

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. 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying tuna:

  • Profits over people? In 2016, Greenpeace published a report about slavery on a Thai tuna fishing vessel. The industry has also been implicated in trafficking; physical and psychological violence towards workers; and degrading and unsafe working conditions. Look for a company with strong commitments to workers' rights.

  • Is it caught using long-line fishing? This method uses extremely long lines with multiple hooks attached. The long-lines are not selective, killing species of all kind, and are often lost into the sea, meaning that the harm continues for many decades. Avoid fish caught using this method.

  • Is it albacore tuna? This variety of tuna is one of the least sustainable options. Opt for a more sustainable choice, such as skipjack, and avoid companies that do not disclose the variety caught. 

Companies to avoid

We would recommend avoiding tuna brands John West and Princes. Although John West scores reasonable well on our table, it comes bottom of Greenpeace's Tuna League Table, as does Princes. According to the 2016 table, 98% of the tuna John West sold is caught using environmentally destructive methods.

  • John West
  • Princes

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20)

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Our Analysis

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.

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

Environmental Concerns in Tuna Production

Overfishing

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 and turtles tuna fishing damage
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 - conservation or 'bluewashing'?

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. 

Its blue logo is intended to influence consumer choice and shift aggregate consumer demand away from unsustainable sources of seafood towards more sustainable ones. The logo was designed to communicate to consumers the three main principles of the MSC:

  • That the target seafood populations are healthy
  • That fishing happens in a way that does not impact on the environment unnecessarily
  • That the fishery involved is managed effectively and responsibly

Since its inception, it has had a meteoric rise, according to the Ethical Markets Report 2016 published by Ethical Consumer. In 2003, MSC-certified fish sales were valued at £10 million while, in 2015, that figure had grown to over £1.5 billion. In 2015, 76% of wild-caught seafood sold in Sainsbury’s supermarkets, 53% in Lidl and 51% in Waitrose carried the MSC logo, according to the same report.

The controversy around MSC

In recent years, the MSC has come under severe criticism from a range of environmental groups and marine scientists.

In 2013, scientists based in US, Mexican and Dutch research institutions, and environmental groups including Greenpeace USA published a review of all the formal objections raised against fisheries proposed for MSC certification between 2000 and 2012. The authors concluded that:

“An analysis of the formal objections indicates that the MSC’s principles for sustainable fishing are too lenient and discretionary, and allow for overly generous interpretation by third-party certifiers and adjudicators, which means that the MSC label may be misleading both consumers and conservation funders”.

Of a total of 19 formal objections raised to proposals for certification, only one was ever upheld. Objections accounted for 12% of the number of fisheries certified. However, the size of these fisheries was large and they accounted for more than a third of all MSC-certified seafood by tonnage.  

James Simpson from the MSC argues that the results of the objection process are more nuanced:

“This analysis argues that the only outcome from an objection that is considered ‘successful’ is for the fishery to fail its MSC assessment. In fact, quite a lot of objections have been upheld and resulted in additional measures to protect stocks and the environment. In many cases, NGOs such as WWF have used the objections process to convince fisheries to agree to new measures to protect the environment. These have been hugely successful.” 

He added that a more recent analysis in 2016 provided information on 31 objections, two of which led to a fishery failure and 16 of which led to a change in scoring (which usually results in new conditions and, thus, further changes at sea). Therefore more than half of objections were successful in influencing certifications.

Six main criticisms

The MSC has been criticised on six main fronts:

1. The MSC will certify all fishing gears and methods including ocean floor dredging and gill nets which many environmental organisations regard as inherently unsustainable and destructive.

Contrary to that the MSC argues that “to be certified, stocks must be within safe biological limits. Stocks deplete and recover as part of their natural cycles, they are never static.  The key issue for sustainability is how that change is managed.  It is considerably easier to get a low-impact fishery MSC certified (eg  rope-grown mussels) than for a high-impact fishery to clear the MSC bar.”

Image: Dredging

“The only MSC certified sustainable dredge fishery in the UK is a dredged scallop fishery.  None of the others have met the MSC standard. Solid, peer- reviewed science like an MSC assessment is useful to highlight those exceptions and can provide a blueprint for other high-impact fisheries to improve their performance.”

2. The MSC criteria allegedly allow for depleted fisheries to be certified provided that the fishing operators commit to measures to rebuild the fisheries. Critics argue that stocks are certified as sustainable before there is evidence that the fish stocks are recovering. 

The MSC responds that “Many stocks rebuild before MSC assessment, and occasionally some rebuild as part of their certification, eg. New Zealand hoki and South Africa hake”.

3. The MSC standards allow certification of fisheries that have high levels of bycatch and do not use all proven mitigation methods. In January 2017, more than 40 environmental groups, in a public letter to the MSC, expressed the view that MSC-certified fisheries do not adequately protect non-target, non-commercial species such as sharks, dolphins, turtles, porpoises and whales from ending up as bycatch.

The authors of the letter wrote this with regards to the Atlantic Canadian Swordfish Longline fishery:

“At the time of certification, this fishery was acknowledged to kill 35,000 endangered, vulnerable and near-threatened sharks per year, as well as impacting 200-500 endangered sea turtles annually. Despite the knowledge that this fishery has a very high bycatch to target catch ratio, and that the quantity of bycaught species can even exceed that of the target species, MSC granted certification.”

4. Further, the authors of the same letter note that the MSC certification fails to reward and differentiate the fisheries with no bycatch. They offer the example of Canadian swordfish fished with harpoons, a method that produces no bycatch, which carries the same certification as the aforementioned long-line fishery. Consumers have no way of distinguishing on the basis of the ‘eco-label’ and the harpoon fishery derives no commercial advantage.

5.The MSC certifies fisheries that are destined for fishmeal which critics consider as an unsustainable and wasteful end-use of seafood.

James Simpson from the MSC counters that “many of these fisheries catch fish that humans are not prepared to eat. With the population set to reach between 9 and 11 billion people by 2050, fish farming is necessary and –  compared to land-based proteins – a low-impact protein.  The volume of seafood going to fishmeal has been static for a considerable amount of time (decades).  Certification of these fisheries is a key step to ensuring the practice is sustainable.”

6. The MSC process is said to favour large-scale industrial fisheries over more sustainable, small-scale ones.

The MSC, on the other hand, argues that “Small scale fisheries are not automatically more sustainable than large-scale.  While the individual small boats may have lower impact than their larger rivals, it is important to consider the cumulative impact of a large number of small boats operating in a small area of coastline.”

Additionally, the MSC emphasises that it is a not-for-profit, mission-driven organisation that invests its surplus back to conservation activities. It points out that its governance structure engages a diversity of stakeholders including NGOs, scientists, fishing companies, retailers, and processors.

It maintains that “fisheries that meet the MSC Standard have the independent science and peer-reviewed evidence-based reports to demonstrate their sustainability. Certified fisheries have invested heavily to become sustainable...”.

Finally, the MSC points out that its standards are performance based, i.e. certified fisheries must not only have the right processes and documents in place but they must also demonstrate proof of application through on-the-ground audits.

Lee Switzer of Fish 4 Ever had this to say about the MSC certification:

“We see the MSC certification as being an industrial approach. It is the industrial boats that have caused the damage, so of course it is good that they are sorting themselves out, but it is not the best version of sustainability. For us, the MSC’s standard or description of over-fishing is set quite low. … The fundamental problem with the MSC is that it is being promoted by its users as the last word in sustainability and because it has so much power behind it, that idea has taken root, drowning out and excluding a myriad number of better approaches and initiatives.”

How MSC’s critics explain these problems

Critics attribute the weakened certification standards to the funding structure of the MSC. The MSC charges a licensing fee on the wholesale value of the quantity of seafood that carries the MSC logo.

Over the years, the importance of this fee revenue has increased substantially going from 7% in 2006, to 49.4% in 2011 to 73% of total revenue in 2015/16.7 The rest of its revenue comes mainly from charitable donations.

The MSC does not conduct the fishery assessments or audits itself. These are carried out by third-party companies who are paid by the fishery operators who voluntarily apply for MSC certification.  

The fishery operators are free to choose the assessment company (certifier). Critics argue that certifiers have an incentive to inflate the performance scores of a fishery as successful certification guarantees income from the required annual audits and from the re-certification process which must occur after five years of initial certification.  Fisheries can also be expected to prefer those companies likely to produce a positive result both for the initial assessment and the subsequent audits.

However, James Simpson from the MSC points out that “10% of fisheries have failed the MSC assessment process”.

He goes on to say that “Independent assessments are intellectually, the most robust mechanism for auditing sustainability. This is the  mechanism used for ISO compliance, and all of the major certification schemes  including Fairtrade, Soil Association Organic and FSC.”  

The performance of independent certifiers has nevertheless been a source of concern for campaigners across these other schemes too and remains a genuine problem in the field.

Critics also claim that raising a formal objection to a certifier’s proposal for certification carries a financial cost to the objector and can only happen within a prescribed window of time. This means that small organisations may not be able to afford to bring an objection forward. And even if all or part of an objection is upheld, it is the certifying company that ultimately decides whether to recommend certification for the fishery.

According to the MSC, this is not the whole picture: “Under FAO rules, MSC is allowed to pay for small organisations to make objections and has done so in the past. However, most objections are made by large, well-funded NGOs and the FAO rules mean that they have to pay part of the cost. Given the choice, MSC would cover these costs for all objectors, but that is not the MSC’s  decision.” 

Is the MSC logo meaningless then?

The advocates of internationally agreed and enforced limitations on fishing volumes point out that the MSC reflects the inherent weaknesses of market-based systems. However, there is a pragmatic question as to what happens in the absence of such agreements between states.

The MSC system has strengths and weaknesses. These are summarised by the US Seafood Watch which offers information to consumers in the manner of the Marine Conservation Society in the UK.

When, in 2013, Seafood Watch assessed the MSC certification against its own Fisheries Criteria, it rated the MSC criteria as good at minimising impact on fish stocks, adequate at both minimising impact on habitat and resources and at promoting effective management of the fishery, but poor at minimising the impact of the fishery on other species (e.g. through large levels of bycatch).

The MSC offers a different picture. According to the MSC Global Impacts Report 2016, an analysis of MSC certified fish stocks in Northern Europe shows that they are now more abundant than prior to certification. Uncertified stocks show much greater variability, with average fishing remaining too high to ensure productive fish stocks.

On our scoretable, we have, for many years, awarded a mark for product sustainability to products that carry the MSC certification and we did so in this product guide as well.

The MSC system, despite its weaknesses and contested effectiveness, is transparent. As well as the Global Impacts Reports, you can go onto the MSC website and read in detail the assessments for each of the individual certified fisheries.  But prepare for a long read as many assessments are more than 300 pages long before you even get to the peer review documents.

This transparency allows the debate on marine conservation to continue on an informed basis. This must be considered alongside the shadowy practices of large parts of the global supply chain of seafood.

And, according to the MSC, the bar is being ratcheted up rather than down:  

“This year, we introduced the latest upgrade to the MSC Standard. Five years of work with scientists and NGOs around the world that raises the bar even further, has now incorporated new tougher protections for the oceans and vulnerable habitats. The world’s top 10% of fisheries which are now certified are already working towards these new standards. And there’s maybe another 10% trying to join them.”

The controversies regarding all ethical certification schemes, such as the ones around the Forest Stewardship Council and Fairtrade, will be familiar to Ethical Consumer readers.  As they become more important, such schemes rightly become new sites for political debate and activism.

The emerging critiques of the MSC are just part of this process and are, inevitably, a key element in the new way politics must be done in unregulated globalised markets until such time as meaningful regulatory regimes can be agreed and enforced.

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.

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’.

Image: Not Just Tuna John West protest
Image: Albacore tuna unsustainable
Albacore Tuna

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.

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.

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.

Image: Pole and Line Method fishing
Pole and line method

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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References

  1. Mintel – Fish and Shellfish UK November 2016