Tempting tuna

I bought a few cheap tins of Greenseas tuna the other day from the local IGA. At a dollar each, I thought to myself, how can something that is supposedly endangered be so cheap? The laws of supply and demand should say that as a resource gets more scarce, its value should increase. They also say that as the value increases, so does the pressure on that resource, until a point at which the resource becomes so scarce that it costs more to produce than the revnue it generates and the industry collapses. By this time, there are no fish, no jobs, and everyone loses.

I wanted to know if any of the tinned tunas are ok to eat, and if so, am I eating the right one? We don’t go to the shops and buy a piece of red meat happy in the knowledge it could be either lamb, beef, goat, kangaroo or deer, so why do we buy something that is, in some cases, vulnerable to overexploitation, and not even know what species it is?

Yep, that’s tinned tuna right there. Do you know what species it is?

As such, I had to find out what sort of tuna was in that tin of Greenseas tuna with lemon and cracked pepper, so read the small print hoping that might shed some light. Dolphin friendly (note: not dolphin ‘safe’), yadda yadda yadda, but nothing about the actual type of tuna I was eating or where it came from. It says ‘product of Thailand’, so maybe that’s a start, thinks I. Then I notice a little web address, http://www.tuna.com.au.

Is this bait or beautiful fresh tuna?

Very interesting. Created by Greenseas, it’s a lovely example of subtle and crafty greenwash. It takes a fair bit of reading to actually figure out that a lot of the time, Greenseas won’t actually say what sort of tuna finds its way from the Western Pacific Ocean, through the Thai processors and canneries and into the tins. From the title of the page: ‘Canned tuna in Australia: The facts on sustainability’, the reader is very craftily convinced they are reading about why the can they’ve just consumed is a ‘sustainably conscious’ product. It’s got all these interesting facts and figures, all of which are indeed true, but doesn’t have one skerrick of info on what sort of tuna is in that can or where and how it was caught (except somewhere in the Western Pacific). The site even tells us that we can make the right choice by chosing skipjack tuna, which is one of the species with a slightly healthier stock status, and choose fish that were pole caught as opposed to those caught in purse-seine nets! How rich: they can tell us how to make the right choice, but the right choice certainly isn’t with Greenseas, and they certainly don’t tell us that!

A link from their website, which I was very surprised to see after some further research, is Greenpeace’s canned tuna guide (http://www.greenpeace.org/australia/issues/overfishing/our-work/cannedtuna). Now, I usually approach anything Greenpeace says with caution, similarly to anything the tuna industry says. The guide lists the main brands in order of ‘sustainability’. At the top of the list is ‘Fish4ever’, which you may have seen in shops. Apparently they are using around 75 percent skipjack tuna and around 25 percent yellowfin, and they are all ‘pole and line’ caught, which I think just means they use solely pole fishing, longlining or trolling methods (PLEASE SEE COMMENT BELOW FROM ELISABETH WINKLER).

While longlines catch a lot of other things other than tuna, such as billfish, sharks, birds and turtles, it’s probably better than purse-seine netting that could remove an entire school in one go. Fish4ever gets a sustainability rating of 86 percent according to Greenpeace.

The next highest rating goes to Aldi brand tuna, which sits on 57 percent. Apparently their tins contain Albacore caught on the troll! While this might conjure up images of burley Germans having a great time catching tuna on the water, it’s a pleasant surprise that Aldi is way ahead of all of the other big supermarkets. Aldi are also apparently leaders in labeling.

IGA comes in at 46 percent for their IGA brand tuna, which is comprised solely of skipjack tuna. The reason they’re a bit low on the ratings is due to the use of Fish Aggregation Devices (FADs) and purse-seine nets, which, according to Greenpeace, result in the capture and death of turtles, sharks and juvenile tuna. However, they apparently have a commitment to a sustainable seafood procurement policy, so at least they’re heading in the right direction.

Now we get to the fun part – the naming and shaming. As you guessed, all of the well-known brands start to appear. Greenseas, which started me off on this whole adventure, comes in with a 29 percent rating. I’m getting close to the truth! Apparently they use tuna that comes from mainly purse-seine netting techniques and FADs, which as mentioned, apparently result in the death of a whole bunch of sharks, turtles and juvenile tuna. What’s really interesting about this basic research I’ve undertaken  is that Greenpeace thinks Greenseas are using skipjack, but there’s nowhere on the http://www.tuna.com.au site (i.e. the Greenseas greenwash site) that states this explicitly. Greenpeace even sites the http://www.tuna.com.au website as a positive initiative. It looks like Greenpeace might have been duped on this one. If Greenseas were using 100 percent skipjack, why wouldn’t they state it explicitly? And why would they have information about yellowfin and bigeye on their http://www.tuna.com.au site???

Coles comes in at 23 percent and the only reason I can see that they’re lower than Greenseas is that they’ve made no real effort to address sustainability issues (greenwash or otherwise), except for labeling the type of tuna in the can, which is 100 percent skipjack.

Next comes Sirena, on 20 per cent. The reason Sirena is so delicious is that it’s made of Yellofin and Longtail tuna, both caught using purse-seine nets and FADs. According to Greenpeace, Sirena doesn’t have any interest in sustainability, but that doesn’t matter, because it’s delicious. Just kidding.

John West and Seakist tuna come in at 11 per cent. John West, the best? Hmm. They basically fail due to the use of purse-seine nets, FADs and no commitment to sustainable tuna fishing. However, they do apparently use skipjack tuna.

Woolworths comes in at 11 percent. Go woolies! According to Greenpeace, Woolies doesn’t provide any info on the techniques used to catch the tuna it sources. Grenade fishing? Rotenone? Woolies select range is yellowfin, whereas their general range is skipjack.

Safcol comes next with 8 per cent. Their lack of transparency on methods, species and sustainability initiatives are the main reasons given by Greenpeace for this poor rating.

Sole Mare (5 percent) uses yellowfin, which is partly why it’s more delicious than skipjack brands. According to Greenpeace, they don’t provide any information on where or how it was caught, and aren’t interested in conservation or sustainability initiatives.

Franklins comes in at 5 percent, due to their use of purse-seine nets, longlines and yellowfin.

At the bottom of the list, on an awesome 2 percent, is SPAR’s Fabulous range. They don’t provide any information on anything really, but they’re way too cheap for that. Given that this is probably the cheapest, dirtiest tuna, you can probably say that it’s the cheaper skipjack caught using the most efficient (and unsustainable) techniques. So, if SPAR could afford to promote the fact they (probably) use skipjack, they could probably get a better rating. But with a name like that, who wouldn’t eat it?

So, to eat or not to eat? It appears that there are some brands that are actually trying, and this is a really postitive step. But until most consumers start thinking about where their food comes from and how it was grown or procured, most people will just buy with their hip pocket. I think education is the key, because ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to eating tuna.

One final thing that really got me interested when researching this: skipjack tuna is the same as striped tuna. Yep, those stripies that are so often used solely for bait are perfectly good to eat. Bled properly and put on ice (see Killing and caring for your catch, on this blog), striped tuna are delicious. Once again the message to me is clear – if I can catch my own fish using ‘sustainable’, discriminate methods, I’m one step closer to really being able to enjoy that fish. And what could be more satisfying than that?

About $250 worth of ‘tinned’ skipjack tuna

Lee Georgeson, August 2011