Sorry Charlie: Loving Tuna to Death

Resolve to start asking hard questions about the tuna on your plate.

If you’ve spent any time at all researching ethical eating choices, you already know to steer clear of the endangered Bluefin Tuna (also known as toro) at your favorite sushi bar.

But, the waters get a little murkier when we’re talking about other types of tuna such as the Ahi in the seafood case at your local grocery store, the Yellowfin on the restaurant menu, or the “chunk light” in those little cans in your cupboard.

Food Police are downers, and I’m not interested in judging anyone’s food choices, but the tuna situation is serious. We are loving tuna to death and to the detriment of our own health. Even if you bought it at your favorite groovy natural food grocery store, ordered it at one of the best restaurants in town, or picked up the can that says “dolphin safe,” it doesn’t mean it’s okay to eat. Tuna is popular and as long as we keep buying it, most retailers will continue to sell it. Here are the problems with that:

Species in Decline

Most species of tuna are under pressure or in decline from overfishing, with more than half at risk of extinction. Tuna are far-ranging fish that roam freely across international fishing boundaries, making enforceable quota agreements complicated. The demise of long-lived predator species like tuna can have an outsized ripple effect on the food web, and cause as yet unknown imbalances in the entire ocean eco-system.

Environmentally Destructive Fishing Methods

Tuna are fast swimming, powerful beasts that have inspired the fishing industry to develop sophisticated ways of finding and catching large numbers of them. Industrial fishing vessels use sonar to find large schools of tuna, and most commonly catch them using purse seines, or long lines, both of which result in an enormous amount of bycatch, including sea turtles, sharks, and sea birds. Much “dolphin- friendly” labeling is bogus and that “dolphin-friendly” can of tuna may still be plenty unfriendly to other species.

Dangerous Levels of Mercury

As a long-lived fish, environmental toxins like mercury can bioaccumulate in the tissues of tuna, posing a real health risk if eaten often. The FDA advises limiting tuna consumption to between 6 and 12 ounces a week, depending on the type of tuna.

After finding higher levels of mercury than FDA guidelines recommend consuming from canned and pouched tuna samples, Consumer Reports issued even stricter guidelines telling pregnant women to avoid tuna entirely. Mercury concerns aside, from an environmental standpoint, where it’s caught and how it’s caught means everything. In the absence of regulation, it’s up to us to start asking more questions about what we’re buying. To find out where the responsible fisheries are, check in with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide. To find out which fishing methods are environmentally preferable read up on them here.

Is there any type of tuna I can eat?

The only tuna you should be eating is that caught locally by small fishing boats trolling with a hook and line. Pacific Albacore from the West Coast is a good example, and can be found fresh or in cans. You will, however, find it to be a rather expensive delicacy to be enjoyed occasionally. But take heart. Saving the tuna for special occasions makes sense from a health standpoint because of the mercury, and if the high price lowers demand, it’s all for the good because perhaps we can leave some for future generations and the long-term health of the ocean. Buying pole and line caught tuna also means supporting the livelihoods of small-scale fishers. Ethical brands include Wild Planet, and American Tuna.

What fish can I eat instead of tuna?

From the EcoSalon archives you’ll find 11 sustainable, healthy choices including sardines, halibut, and farmed trout and mollusks. Monterey Bay Aquarium also has a chart of alternatives here.

So most of you aren’t about to replace your tuna salad sandwich with a sardine salad sandwich, but why not try canned wild salmon? Mix it with mayonnaise and add capers, dill, and a squeeze of lemon and see what you think. You might just like it better.

Images: Japes18, Dive Karma ,Tony the Bald Eagle

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate,  on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.