TunaCanned tuna is a challenge. It requires more research than it should. Last week, I heard a woman from the Monterey Bay Aquarium talk about canned tuna on the Splendid Kitchen. I’ve done a little research to see how my purchases rate. Sadly, it turns out that what used to be solidly sustainable choices are now less so.

What to consider:

-type of fishing equipment used
-the health of the ocean stock (head count, if you will)
-the mercury content

The type of equipment affects the sizes of the fish caught and the amount of by-catch, or non-tuna species, that are also caught. Endangered species are often caught in giant nets called purse seines, while other hook and line set-ups primarily catch tuna. The health of the stock is fairly obvious– when you have a decreased pool of fish, they are in danger of not being able to reproduce quickly enough to replace their population. There are also more complex issues, like decreased genetic stock and disrupted ecosystems, but let’s just agree that we want healthy ocean population levels.

The mercury levels are federally regulated. You can argue that heavy metals are indisputably destructive and ideal exposure would be zero, especially for pregnant women and small children. However, that’s unrealistic in our current environment. All brands must test their tuna, so “safe” levels are universal.

Previously, I primarily bought Tongol Tuna via Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. It’s not a huge part of my diet, but tuna is definitely one of those shelf-stable staples I keep around for when the power goes out or I skip grocery shopping. Or, upon occasion, for bribing the cat into/out of a particular space. Within the last few months, I’ve become enamored with a brand called Wild Planet as it tastes better. (They only cook it once, in the can, instead of prior to canning it and then again during the canning process.)

Brand Evaluations:

Whole Foods 365: It’s a “good alternative.” They do source from the mostly sustainably fished areas (Malaysia), but the population there is only at a moderate levels rather than a healthy levels. In other words, you can keep this around for emergencies but it should not be a significant part of your daily diet.

Trader Joe’s: Info not currently listed. They are in the process of upgrading their packaging to reflect country of origin, fishing methods, and species. Basically, we don’t know but suspect the worst. However, no tongol tuna is rated best choice by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. So, it should not be in your daily diet. Whole Foods rates higher currently due to known sourcing (pricing in my area is the same).

Major brands and grocery brands: It’s an obtuse mess. “Light,” “white,” and “albacore” do not give the reader enough information to judge sustainability. You need very detailed info to select wisely, and that’s not readily available for canned fish. A review of Bumblebee’s website, for example, reveals paragraphs about sustainability and links to fishery evaluations and fishing methods but no readily available info about where exactly they are fishing and what might be in the can you are buying. D- on transparency.


Wild Planet actually seems to do a great job of sourcing their fish. It’s a bit pricey, compared to non-sustainably canned fish, but incredibly cheap compared to fresh sustainably caught fish. As an added plus, it is widely available via major grocery chains, they use BPA-free cans, and they can their fish without added oil/water or salt (salted available). Their mercury testing also appears to be based on lower cut-offs.

There are probably other sustainably produced brands, but this is the one that I have found to be most common in my area. Alternatively, canned wild Alaskan salmon is reliably sustainable. Basically, any brand of wild Alaskan salmon will meet the sustainable criteria. To learn more about specific species and ocean stock levels, review the information available in the resources below.

More Info
Monterey Bay Report on Tuna
Blue Ocean Institute
Marine Stewardship Council

Image credit: Drawing Dr Tony Ayling, via Wikimedia Commons

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