Our Tuna Addiction: Is Sustainable Tuna a White Whale?

sustainable tuna

We’ve got a serious problem in our lunches: tuna. Not only is the tuna population dwindling at record-breaking speeds, but experts note that eating large, predatory fish may be hazardous to our health. It seems that sustainable tuna might be as much of an oxymoron as jumbo shrimp — but is that the reality?

Where Have All the Bluefin Gone?

To understand this problem, we first have to understand that tuna is a word that refers to a lot of different fish. The tuna in your tuna salad is not the same as the tuna at the sushi bar, and while each of these fish have their own challenges to face out in the big blue sea, Pacific Bluefin is the most endangered of them all.

“The total amount of Bluefin in the ocean is 2.5 percent of its historic total,” says Ryan Bigelow, Seafood Watch Program Engagement Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “Ninety-seven percent of tuna are gone. Ninety-seven and a half.”

What’s worse: this enormous loss of tuna has only really occurred in the past seventy years.

“While I can’t scientifically tell you when they will all be gone, it is urgent,” says Bigelow. “If something doesn’t change soon, we could very easily fish them into commercial extinction. We’ve done it before with other species. So it’s definitely possible, and it could happen easily within our lifetimes, easily within the next 20 years.”

sustainable tuna

The Culprit of Tuna’s Demise: Modern Fishing Practices

So, how did we get to such a horrible state? Basically, by being a bit too good at what we do.

“Here’s the problem with modern fishing,” says Bigelow. “We’re really, really good at it. If your only goal was to take fish out of the water as fast as you can and with no concerns about sustainability, then we’re amazing at it.”

Fishing industry technology has slowly but surely advanced since World War II; today, armed with plane and satellite tracking technologies, we are able to remove tuna from the oceans at amazing speeds. This almost never translates to sustainable tuna fishing methods.

The Fish Aggravating Device or FAD is one such unsustainable fishing method. Objects ranging from bamboo rafts in developing countries to GPS satellite tracked platforms in the U.S. create shade in the open ocean, attracting smaller fish, which then attract bigger and bigger fish.

“Pretty soon, you have a whole swarm of different life swimming around under the platform,” explains Bigelow. “Once you have that, you come in with a giant purse seine, which is a net that you wrap around them and then cinch up like an old-style cinch purse, and catch everything. So you catch the baby tuna, you catch the sharks, and you catch the big tuna.”

While this method is very energy efficient — not to mention cost-effective — it’s not great for the environment or for dwindling fish populations.

There are, however, alternatives to purse-seine caught fish. Troll pole or hand-line is one fishing method that is fairly widely used by the sustainable tuna fishing industry.

“What it means is you have one person with one fishing pole catching fish, often at a very fast rate, off the back of a boat, usually,” explains Bigelow. “But that’s much more sustainable, and the reason for that is because if you catch something you don’t want to catch, you can immediately put it back in the water.”

This fact distinguishes this troll pole-caught tuna from long line-caught tuna, for example, where a line as much as a mile long is dragged in the water, often trap animals like seabirds and turtles that will not be found until long after too late.

The Health Hazards of Choosing Tuna

But sustainability and diminishing fish stocks are not the only issues plaguing the tuna industry. Toxins ranging from mercury to toxic plastic have been found in this popular fish, neither of which is particularly appetizing when it shows up on your plate.

“You have to eat fish, and a lot of it, before contaminants will have a negative impact,” says Ed Cassano, CEO of Pelagic Research Services and a former senior executive at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “But I think that eating lower down on the food chain is always a smarter thing.”

Certain stocks of tuna, such as West Coast Albacore, are more sustainable and less likely to bioaccumulate than others. As a rule of thumb, stocks of tuna that are shorter-lived will contain less of these dangerous materials and will therefore be safer to eat.

Choosing Sustainable Tuna Alternatives

Even though all of this information may seem scary, you actually don’t need to avoid tuna entirely to eat sustainably or healthfully, according to our experts. Both Bigelow and Cassano eat fish regularly, including big predatory fish like tuna.

The trick is to choose sustainable tuna; to find it, you’ll have to become a label reader.

Tuna labeled FAD-free or troll poll is often a good place to start, and you can be even more informed by checking in with NGOs like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, whose Seafood Watch app will help keep you informed about sustainable tuna options available to you.

“Eat more seafood, eat different types of seafood, and eat it more thoughtfully, I think, is how I might think about it,” says Bigelow. This means, of course, that depending on your fish-eating habits, you may need to cut back, at least a bit.

Instead of relying exclusively on tuna, here are a few good options for changing things up, from sashimi to sandwiches.

Instead of raw Bluefin…

Choose raw wild salmon. While you won’t get the same flavor, you will get a lot more omega-3s, and you’ll be choosing a more sustainable fish than Bluefin. Salmon is much easier to chart than tuna, making it easier to see how stocks are faring across the globe.

“Salmon do something that makes managing the relatively easily – they return to spawn in the place where they were born,” explains The Atlantic. Because of this, fisheries are able to keep track of long-term salmon populations in a way that just isn’t possible with tuna.

“Tuna are an example of what we call highly migratory species,” explains Cassano. “They aren’t managed by any one nation, and they don’t fall under any single management plan because of the nature of the species, so that makes them a very complex species to actually manage.”

Salmon is also much lower in toxins than most types of tuna, feeding mostly on small crustaceans rather than other fish, like tuna do.

Instead of canned tuna…

Choose mackerel. Mackerel is an extremely sustainable fish with lots of great flavor. It’s full of healthy fats and flavor, meaning you don’t need to add a lot of it to a dish to take advantage of it. Use mackerel instead of tuna in your favorite salade Niçoise recipe.

If you’re making tuna salad, however, you might opt for a different substitute. Egg salad is a great substitute for tuna salad — this version with herbed aioli is killer — or you could choose a vegan meat substitute, such as tempeh or even jackfruit to stand in for one of America’s favorite fish.

Related on Organic Authority
Overfishing and Illegal Fishing Activity Revealed to Public Through Online Platform
Eating Tuna While Pregnant Not Recommended at All, Says Consumer Reports
‘Radioactive’ Tuna Caught in Northwest, Fukushima Meltdown to Blame

Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.