The Two Oceans Aquarium received a seemingly simple query - is canned tuna a sustainable option for someone trying to be more thoughtful about their food choices?

We investigated and reviewed the information provided by 10 popular local canned tuna brands. This canned tuna is what is typically referred to as some combination of "Light meat shredded tuna in brine", and, unless otherwise noted, almost all these brands share the same characteristics. 

Let's take a look at the tuna cans and see what kind of information they can provide us with.

What kind of tuna is in your can?

What is a "Tuna (fish)"? Albacore, bluefin, little tunny? If an aquarium can't intuit meaning from this, how can the consumer?

There is no single fish called a "tuna" - the name tuna actually refers to 15 different related fish, and these fish have varying degrees of vulnerability and sustainability associated with them. In the South African market, we typically encounter 5 types of tuna: Albacore, bigeye tuna, bluefin tuna, skipjack tuna and yellowfin tuna.

Unless you are buying a niche product, your tin contains skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis), and in almost all cases this has been caught in the South China Sea, off the coast of Thailand.

What is a skipjack tuna?

The skipjack tuna is a small member of the tuna family, forming large schools in warm ocean waters. Although it is small for a tuna, it can grow up to a metre long, weigh over 10kg, is scaleless and form schools of over 50 000 fish - clearly making it an economically important fish. It is a predator, feeding on a wide variety of oceanic prey.

It is highly fecund and grows rapidly, making it a sustainable fish stock in theory. However, poor management of bycatch, poor regional management of fishing quotas and unsustainable fishing techniques has led to international criticism of the skipjack tuna industry.

Is Thai skipjack tuna sustainable?

Short answer - no (with a few exceptions).

Long answer, it depends. Unfortunately for the buyer, few of these brands indicate the method by which their canned tuna was procured - making it difficult to compare the product to the WWF SASSI List. We think it is safe to err on the side of caution and assume that the cheapest, and often least sustainable practices were used.

Just "tuna"? Unfortunately, this brand is not alone in providing limited information on their cans - this makes it understandably difficult for the consumer to know what they are getting in terms of sustainability.

Thai skipjack tuna is sourced from the South China Sea, generally considered to be sustainable - although the fishing practices used are often not. Almost all skipjack tuna caught in this region is with purse seine nets, nets that are used to ring in an entire school of fish at once. In some instances, a fish aggregating device (FAD) is used, which results in large amounts of bycatch. Tuna caught in this way is RED LISTED.

Although some brands go a step further than simply telling us that the tuna is a product of Thailand, this once again is not all the info needed for an informed decision. FAO71 refers to a fishing region from Thailand to Indonesia, Australia and east beyond Polynesia.

In cases where free swimming schools are targeted, and no devices are used to aggregate fish, bycatch is relatively low, but the management of the tuna stocks themselves is poor. Tuna caught in this way is ORANGE LISTED - best to be avoided. 

Pick'n'Pay's NoName brand is a great example of how easy it is to fully inform a consumer about what they are buying!

Finally, skipjack tuna that is pole or hand caught in South Africa is regarded as GREEN LISTED - a sustainable option. Generally, this type of fishery is highly selective, meaning that bycatch is kept to a minimum, but it still poses a risk if used to catch locally overfished species. Thus, an assessment of an areas fish stocks needs to be conducted before it can receive green status.

Woolworth's tuna is the only brand in South Africa that is pole and line caught in an MSC Certified fishery - making it the only confirmed GREEN choice for canned tuna.

What does "Dolphin Friendly" really mean?

What does "dolphin friendly" really mean?

It means nothing. Dolphin Friendly is a certification in the US and Australia, but there is no certification process for the ecolabel in South Africa. While we are in no way implying that these brands are lying, just bear in mind that there is no enforcement or regulation of any sort guiding them - their compliance (or lack thereof) is purely voluntary.


What about MSC certification?

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) provides an ecolabel to suppliers of seafood products which can be traced back through their supply chain by MSC's panel of experts to assess its sustainability. The standards set by the MSC are regarded as high in South Africa.

Woolworth's canned tuna is the only MSC certified brand in South Africa.

What are retailers doing to be sustainable?

During our evaluation, and in consultation with WWF SASSI, two brands were identified that are going the extra mile to ensure sustainability:

Woolworths branded canned tuna is without a doubt the sustainable choice, being line-caught from a GREEN LISTED fishery in the Maldives and MSC Certified for sustainability. Woolworth's tuna thus takes the prize of being the only truly sustainable canned tuna in South Africa.

Well done on bringing SA's first sustainable canned tuna to the market Woolworths. Image courtesy of Fishing Industry News.

Pick'n'Pay's PnP and NoName branded canned tuna disclose the fishing method used (purse seine), which confirms that this is indeed ORANGE LISTED. Although this is not truly sustainable, Pick'n'Pay are actively working with WWF SASSI and the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation to ensure that their entire tuna supply chain is as sustainable as possible - and we look forward to being able to update their status on this post in the not too distant future.

Other brands likely share similar production methods with Pick'n'Pay, but without making that information easily accessible to the public, we cannot recommend any other brand as a choice for those of you wanting to make an informed decision. We'd like to encourage other brands to follow the examples set by Woolworths and Pick'n'Pay - please add pertinent information to your packaging. Transparency and sustainability go hand in hand.

*The Two Oceans Aquarium is not affiliated with any brand or retailer mentioned in this article. Endorsement of the Woolworths and Pick'n'Pay brands purely relate to the merits of their canned tuna products and in no way reflect our opinions or support of these retailers at large. Please make the sustainable seafood choice - use the WWF SASSI App.

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