Why canned tuna counts

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Feature Story - 16 October, 2012
A can of tuna may be small in size but tuna brands play a big role in the health of our oceans. This role is becoming increasingly important as tuna stocks rapidly decline and thousands of tonnes of other marine animals continue to be killed, pushing some species towards extinction.
Tuna Ranking©Greenpeace / Marco Care

Tuna is one of the world's favourite fish. It is a critical part of the diet for millions of people across the globe. While some countries like Japan prefer tuna fresh, canned tuna is the most popular seafood product in countries like Australia and the UK. In fact Australians consume over 250 million cans of tuna a year.

Globally, tuna populations are in trouble. Many species are threatened or even critically endangered and the numbers continue to decline. Bigeye tuna is in serious trouble in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, where they were found in relatively healthy numbers just a few years ago; yellowfin tuna are not doing well either. These are the same fish stocks targeted by Australian tuna fishermen off the coast of Queensland. Skipjack tuna is in the healthiest state, but it too is quickly diminishing.

Destructive fishing methods

Industrial fishing practices mean we can catch fish faster than nature can replenish its seas. 90% of the oceans’ large predatory fish, such as tuna, swordfish, marlin and sharks, have already been taken from our oceans.

One of the most important things tuna brands can do for our oceans is stop using fish aggregating devices (FADs) with large 'purse seine' nets.

FADs act like giant fish magnets. They draw in marine life to be scooped up in purse seine nets. This method of fishing is indiscriminate. It threatens to wipe out tuna stocks because of the large incidental catch of juvenile tuna from species that are at risk. The catch of juvenile tuna as well as sharks, rays, and even turtles – known as bycatch – can be ten times higher than fishing without FADs.

The unfair advantage

Most tuna comes from the Pacific. Industrial fishing fleets from distant water nations like China, Taiwan, Spain and the United States are sent to the Pacific to exploit the region’s stocks, having depleted their own. Some ships, known as super seiners, can take as much tuna in a single trip as some Pacific Island countries can take in a year. Despite the fact that more than half of the world’s tuna comes from the Pacific, Pacific Island nations receive only 5-6% of the value of tuna caught.

A sustainable choice

Globally, we must end our use of destructive fishing methods if we are to reverse the decline of our oceans. Some tuna brands are taking ocean protection seriously and switching to sustainable fishing methods, such as ‘pole and line’, and abandoning the use of FADs with purse seine nets. With pole and line fishing, each fish is individually caught, reducing the impact on tuna stocks and on the level of bycatch. Pole and line fishing also brings more employment opportunities for local communities in the Pacific.

Australians want change

In the UK, the entire tuna industry committed long ago to switch to sustainable tuna methods. There is no reason the Australian industry cannot do the same – after all, Australians want it.

Greenpeace produces a Canned Tuna Guide to help consumers make an informed choice and to pressure brands to clean up their act. Since we launched our first Canned Tuna Guide, thousands of Australians have written to tuna brands urging them not to sell tuna that destroys our oceans. Celebrity wellness adviser and acclaimed author, Sarah Wilson, supports the Greenpeace campaign.

“Australians really care about our ocean and marine life and we want to do everything we can to do the right thing by them,” said Wilson. “With so much choice available, this guide really helps the consumer separate the green from the greenwash.”

Greenpeace’s 2012 Canned Tuna Guide will be launched on Monday 22 October.