Yellowfin Tuna - () GREENPEACE / Paul Hilton

You know things are dire when this happens ... the long running annual ‘Extreme Boats Open Tuna Tournament’ off Whakatane has this year been rebranded the ‘Extreme Boats 20K-4 Ways Tournament.’ That’s because, unlike in the past, the yellowfin tuna that gave the contest its name are now too few and far between. A club spokesperson told the NZ Fishing News that to carry on calling the event a tuna tournament, when the yellowfin are non-existent, was not an option.

So where have all the tuna gone? Well, the shelves of your local supermarket might hold a clue…

Late last year Greenpeace arranged for fifty brands of tuna from 12 countries to be DNA tested, to find out if the contents of the cans matched what the labels said was inside.

The independent lab found that tins from Sealord contained longtail tuna, a species important to small scale coastal fishers in the Indo-Pacific, and protected as a ‘recreational only’ species in Australia.

As a result, Sealord commissioned its own testing of the product. The first tests revealed no longtail, but given this was a different batch of tuna, that doesn't say much – one of the findings of the Greenpeace commissioned tests was that the content of a tuna product can vary from one can to another, and in some cases two different species may even be found in the same can (something that is illegal in the European Union).

Sealord has stated that yellowfin tuna (the closest relative of longtail) should have been found in the cans of tuna tested. But that in itself is a big worry, as yellowfin tuna is one of the species in trouble around the world. Here in the Pacific it's an important source of food and income to Pacific Island countries, and New Zealand's yellowfin are part of the same yellowfin stock shared across the region.

From their breeding grounds in the tropical Pacific, yellowfin tuna must run the gauntlet of literally thousands of tuna fishing vessels and an unknown number of fish aggregating devices (notorious for their impact on juvenile yellowfin) before they reach New Zealand waters.

The impact of all that fishing pressure is taking its toll: Last year the Whakatane tournament didn’t catch a single yellowfin – the first time in the history of the Tournament that the prized species was missing from the catch (incidentally, as well as dropping ‘tuna’ from the contest’s name, organisers have taken the positive step of removing sharks from the Tournament, for conservation reasons.

Leading tuna brands overseas are removing yellowfin from their supply chain due to sustainability concerns, and it's time for New Zealand companies to start taking the state of our oceans and fisheries more seriously.

That’s not to say that all overseas tuna brands are exactly paragons of responsibility.

Having got wind of the fact that it was going to come last in Greenpeace UK's new tinned tuna league table, Tesco (a supermarket giant in the UK) did a spectacular u-turn. After being the subject of a Greenpeace investigation, it has radically improved its policy on the fishing methods used to catch its own-brand tinned tuna.

It seems the mere threat of a Greenpeace campaign - and the outrage of thousands of Greenpeace supporters - is sometimes enough to move huge corporations.

With that seismic shift from Tesco, Princes - a tuna supplier with an incredibly poor record for sustainability – came a conspicuous last place in the UK tinned tuna league table. Princes’ methods, even by the standards of the wider industry, are shocking.

Whale Shark on Board a Purse SeinerThe majority of Princes tuna is caught using FADs (fish aggregating devices) alongside massive purse seine nets. FADs are basically death traps for endangered sharks, turtles and juvenile tuna. If any company is serious about sustainability, it shouldn't have anything to do with them.

Greenpeace UK supporters have been sending complaints to their national fair trading authority pointing out that Princes has been printing false green claims on its tuna tins in the UK. Labels state "Princes is fully committed to fishing methods which protect the marine environment and marine life."

After just one day of launching this online action Greenpeace UK received confirmation from Princes that it will be removing the statement. That's a step – but it's hardly a step in the direction we are after. Princes can expect to feel the heat from consumers until it changes what's in their tuna tins – not just what's on the label.

Greenpeace is calling on tuna companies worldwide to:

  • Stop catching and trading tuna from stocks that are in trouble, like bigeye and yellowfin.
  • Support the creation of marine reserves and respect the closure of four pockets of high seas in the Pacific by not catching or sourcing tuna from those areas.
  • End the use of wasteful fish aggregating devices in purse seine fisheries by choosing pole and line or FAD-free tuna.
  • Label products accurately. Just saying it's tuna simply doesn't cut it when “tuna” is actually a whole collection of species ranging from relatively abundant skipjack to critically endangered species.

As part of our efforts to protect Pacific tuna, the Rainbow Warrior is currently in Taiwan, the home of a large number of the tuna vessels in the region. The visit is part of an East Asia tour, rallying support for the creation of marine reserves in the Pacific Commons - one of the most important marine areas for the conservation of the world's tuna species. You can find all the updates from us on the ship including videos, photos and blogs here.