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Top canned tuna brands rank worst in destructive fishing practices

Starkist, Bumblebee, and the kitchily named Chicken of the Sea are among the most familiar brands of canned tuna on grocery store shelves. They also rank the worst in terms of the sustainability and transparency of their fishing and labor practices, according to the environmental non-profit Greenpeace USA.

The group’s recently released Tuna Shopping Guide ranks 14 of the most popular tuna brands in the U.S., giving 8 failing grades. Greenpeace has conducted parallel comparisons of canned tuna in the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Australia, and Canada. The group’s website notes that as a result, companies have started improving their practices to less harmful alternatives.

“PacificPacific bluefin tuna. Photo by Rhett Butler.

For each U.S. brand, Greenpeace evaluated several factors to draw their conclusions: fishing methods, fishing locations, health of targeted tuna stocks, dedication to ethical labor standards, clear delivery of a sustainability policy, traceability of tuna from sea to shelf, availability of product information, and avoidance of suppliers that engage in illegal fishing practices.

“Over 80 percent of the tuna sold in the US comes from unsustainable, destructive sources,” states a press release announcing the guide. In fact, those three familiar brands alone — StarKist (ranked last), Bumble Bee (ranked 12th), and Chicken of the Sea (ranked 11th) — account for a whopping 80 percent of tuna sold in the U.S.

The guide states that these well-known brands refused to respond to inquiries about their practices. The worst-performer, StarKist, earned low marks for sourcing their tuna from destructive fisheries that accidentally kill a lot of other marine species as “bycatch.” Greenpeace also granted the brand low marks for its questionable commitment to human rights; the group says StarKist has a “vague corporate responsibility statement on its website and does not detail how it ensures its products are addressing issues of human rights or equitable sourcing.”

Sea turtles are one example of other marine animals that are killed as bycatch, as a result of destructive tuna fishing practices. Photo by Rhett Butler.

There is some hope for major chain store brands, the guide suggests. Although house tuna brands from Kroger (ranked 13th), Walmart (ranked 10th), Target (ranked 9th), Costco (ranked 8th), and Safeway (ranked 7th) all received failing grades, the guide gave middling grades to the house brands of Whole Foods (ranked 4th), Hy-Vee Select (ranked 5th), and Trader Joe’s (ranked 6th).

The best-scoring brands were Wild Planet (ranked 1st), American Tuna (ranked 2nd), and Ocean Naturals (ranked 3rd). These three brands employ sustainable fishing methods that reduce or eliminate bycatch of unwanted species: pole-and-line fishing, which catches tuna one at a time, and trolling, in which a line is towed behind a boat with a lure that attracts selected fish. The top-ranked brand, Wild Planet, has a strong sustainability policy, promises not to fish from proposed ocean sanctuaries in the Western and Central Pacific, and discloses its sustainability mission on its packaging.

Greenpeace’s guide also explains terms that commonly appear on tuna-can labels so consumers can make their own assessments. Albacore (Thunnus alalunga), often called white meat or white tuna, exists in healthy stocks in some locations, and less healthy ones in others. Yellowfin (T. albacares), sometimes called light meat, has been subject to overfishing and has suffered declines. And bigeye tuna (T. obesus) is one of the most overfished species; it’s listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN. The guide suggests avoiding yellowfin and bigeye. Skipjack (Katsuwonus pelamis), often marketed as light, is the most abundant tuna species and a safer choice than most other kinds of tuna.

Some tuna-can labels describe the kind of fishing techniques used. Purse seines, giant nets that encircle whole schools, and long lines, fishing lines that can be dozens of miles long carrying thousands of hooks, both capture marine life indiscriminately and are among the most destructive tuna fishing practices. (As much as 35 percent of the catch from longlines may be bycatch, according to the press release.)

Bluefin tuna. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Circle hooks, sometimes cast on long lines, have a rounded shape that is supposed to deter sea turtles. Although they offer an improvement over traditional longlining, they are not perfect. Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) are buoyant objects that attract sea creatures indiscriminately, resulting in the deaths of many non-targeted animals. They are often used in conjunction with purse seines (how most tuna is caught), but FAD-free or Free School Caught labels indicate that no FADs were used, a step in the right direction. The best option for canned tuna is pole-and-line caught.

Greenpeace notes that some tuna-can label terms are misleading or confusing. For example, tuna marked Dolphin Safe or Dolphin Friendly may have been caught using gear that kills rays and turtles. Friend of the Sea, Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), and Ocean Wise are three certification programs intended to ensure that tuna is sustainably produced, but Greenpeace suggests they may vary in their rigor.

Greenpeace hopes its Tuna Shopping Guide will compel the low-scoring brands to change their ways and enable and encourage consumers to vote with their wallets and choose ethically produced tuna.

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