Food Trends

More grocers pledge to sell responsibly caught canned tuna

Supermarkets are working toward providing new versions of canned tuna.

Supermarkets are working toward providing new versions of canned tuna.  (iStock)

Americans really, really love canned tuna fish.

According to the National Fisheries Institute, Americans consumed more than 700 million pounds of canned tuna in 2015. That equates to 2.2 pounds per person annually.

The food remains among the top three seafood items Americans consume each year-- and it’s held that ranking for more than 10 years.

But now retailers are saying that there's something pretty fishy going on in the canned tuna industry and, as is the trend with many other foods, there's been a renewed focus on how the fish is caught and processed-- and where it comes from. 

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To that effect, on Whole Foods Market recently announced that by next January, all of the canned tuna sold in stores or used in its prepared foods departments will be sourced only from fishers that exclusively use pole-and-line, troll or hand line catch methods. These methods theoretically eliminate the issue of bycatch or the unintentional harvest of other fish, birds or mammals. With Whole Foods' protocols in place, their fisherman will be catching tuna individually to prevent overfishing. 

The chain’s new policy also mandates canned tuna products to originate from fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or be sourced from fisheries rated green (best choice) or yellow (good alternative) by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and The Safina Center.

And the supermarket has instituted a traceability requirement, too.

"There are a lot of points in the supply chain where tuna changes hands. We want to map it from catch to can. That's critical," Carrie Brownstein, the global seafood quality standards coordinator for Whole Foods Market, told NPR.

But’s it not just Whole Foods that’s shaking things up in the canned food aisle.

Hy-Vee, a 240-store grocery chain in the Midwest, previous set and met its own sustainable seafood goals for its fresh and frozen seafood departments. In January, Hy-Vee announced a new canned tuna policy, citing concerns over high levels of bycatch in fisheries that use fish-aggregating devices (FADS) the chain decided to switch policies. Though the chain says it is "committed" to sustainable sourcing, its policy does not specify that it will only source from companies meeting stricter standards. 

"There's a huge issue of bycatch with those," Ryan Bigelow, the program engagement manager with Seafood Watch, said of the way the tuna is often caught.

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"FADs can be anything from a bamboo raft in the ocean to a large platform," Bigelow said. "You wait for the little fish to congregate under it, and then other fish come, and soon, you have all sorts of animals swarming around the platform."

But what’s often in the net isn’t just tuna. There are also dolphins, sea birds, and other fish not initially targeted.

Chicken of the Sea, Starkist and Bumble Bee are the biggest canned tuna brands in the U.S. and though carried by most major chains, fishing industry insiders think Whole Foods' initiatives and others will push them to consider how they catch their fish. 

Bumble Bee launched its Trace My Catch program in 2015 which allows people to enter a code found on their can of tuna to get more information on the exact species they're consuming and how it was caught. But the brand still supplies its tuna cans with fish caught in traditional fishing methods.

So what should consumers look for in the grocery store? According to Bigelow, there are some important labels to consider.

"Look for pole and line caught, labels that say FAD free, and some kind of certification is usually a helpful guide,” he said. “Those are the big ones."