Tuna and the ethical consumer

The bluefin tuna has been part of controversy for years. I wrote my environmental law thesis late last year on methods to protect the bluefin from extinction but the situation is terribly bleak. 80% of global supply is being consumed in Japan as they prize the tender, fatty meat for sushi dishes.

According to the WWF, the Atlantic bluefin tuna will be wiped out by 2012 if fishing is not halted. The spawning population of the western Atlantic bluefin has declined 80% in the past 40 years. In 2008 the combined national fleets of Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, and Spain exceeded their international catch quota for bluefin by 25%—driven in part by the lucrative Japanese market, where a single 600kg fish can fetch $100,000.

The latest initiative, the Bluefin Tuna Catch Document (BCD) is a paper-based system of tracking tuna introduced in 2008. The BCD is collated by the Madrid-based secretariat of ICCAT, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. It is meant to be a vital tool in the preservation of stocks, attaching a number to each catch or net-load so it can be followed from vessel to market.

However there are many discrepancies with this system which still allows loopholes for illegal trading of tuna. Whilst the EU has backed a total ban on fishing the bluefin, it was rejected and fishing still continues. Now there is a huge black-market for illegally caught bluefin which is threatening the species' survival. Sometimes being an ethical consumer goes above and beyond one's personal sphere of comfort. As with the case of sharks, so is the case with the tuna. Decline of apex species is detrimental to ocean health and this is something of importance.

Most experts agree that pole and line caught skipjack tuna is the most sustainable form of eating tuna. As an ethical consumer, this should be the only kind you should endorse. Several major brands in the UK like John West and Princes are off the list as they use purse seines which increase the amount of by-catch which is usually discarded. The best brands to endorse include Sainburys, Co-op and Marks & Spencers. Endorsing sustainable fishing goes a long way towards protecting declining fish-stocks. Because tuna is now something that is so commonly available, always be aware of where it comes from. Unless you know it is sustainable, it is best not to endorse it.

It is not only just enough to ensure that your can of tuna is 'dolphin-friendly', US laws require all tuna to be dolphin-friendly. Instead, look into the actual method of fishing to ensure that canned tuna (as well as other seafood) is sustainable. In addition, look for labels that certify sustainable methods of fishing.

In conclusion: fish for your consumer choice.