Step away from that tuna can.
Its "dolphin safe" label produces warm feelings, but don't mistake it for "turtle safe" or "ocean safe." And it's certainly not "tuna safe." Accidental entanglements of sharks, sea turtles, juvenile tuna and other marine creatures take their own ecological toll -- prompting the Monterey Bay Aquarium's well-regarded Seafood Watch consumer guide to take an unusual step: It recently began telling consumers to avoid all canned tuna, except for the minority labeled "troll caught" or "pole-and-line" caught. That describes precious few cans, typically from small brands selling for around $2.50 to $6.50.
Yes, the canned tuna in U.S. supermarkets is dolphin safe. So is the tuna of more than 90% of the world's tuna canners -- a big eco-marketing accomplishment. The marketing and labels are effective for selling tuna, but extremely misleading if you think the label means environmentally safe, as you'll see in the list farther below.
Here's what prompted the aquarium's move: There's no way you can tell by looking at a can of Bumble Bee, Starkist, Chicken of the Sea or generic tuna how the fish inside was caught or other particulars that can reveal your lunchpail's ocean impact. One study found that for every 1,000 tons of yellowfin tuna caught through one particular dolphin-safe technique, "fishermen caught nearly 111,000 other individual fish, including sharks, rays, marlins and sea turtles -- several varieties of which are endangered."
As Forbes.com put it, the dolphin safe label "has become a cover-up for a high-seas scandal every bit as serious as the one it set out to stop. It sends a feel-good message to shoppers, while humans deplete tuna stocks just as they decimated once-plentiful stocks like cod."
People are becoming more aware that dolphin safe doesn't necessarily mean environmentally safe, says Timothy Essington, a fisheries science associate professor at University of Washington. "It's not as simple as protecting the dolphins," Essington says. "If you're not killing dolphins, you're killing something else. Which is more damaging: accidentally killing a bunch of dolphins, or accidentally killing a bunch of sharks?... Sharks are some of the big losers."
A safer sandwich alternative, environmentally speaking, is canned wild salmon, which has as much or more Omega-3 fatty acids as tuna and less mercury. If you mix it with mayo, celery and onions for a sandwich, "it doesn't taste any different, which especially for kids is a big issue," says marine scientist Timothy Fitzgerald, an Environmental Defense Fund senior policy specialist. "My son loves and eats that now," says Ken Peterson, spokesman for the Monterey aquarium.
The tuna industry bristles at this. Some 88% of the world's tuna stocks used in canning aren't over-fished, says Gavin Gibbons, spokesperson for the National Fisheries Institute, the trade organization representing Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea and StarKist.
Monterey Bay Aquarium's ranking system, he says, appears "skewed such that any mention of by-catch earns a stock 'avoid' label," which "not only ignores ongoing efforts to fund science dedicated solely to mitigating tuna by-catch, it also largely ignores the actual health of the stocks themselves." If the tuna industry shifted totally to troll or pole-fishing, he wondered what the unintended consequences would be. Would it hammer stocks of bait fish? "Are those bait fisheries being sustainably managed now? These are questions that should have answers before making sweeping proclamations about how consumers should choose their canned tuna."
What sets the Monterey aquarium's recommendations apart from at least some other consumer seafood guides is the others tend to be so nuanced that they can confuse consumers. SeaChoice's chart tells consumers to avoid canned albacore tuna caught by pelagic longline anywhere except Hawaii, in which case it has only "some concerns." The best choice, it says, is troll or pole-caught albacore caught in Hawaii, the Canadian Pacific or the U.S. Pacific.
Ever see information like that on a tuna can?
There's the rub -- it seems that no ordinary tuna can reveals anything about where the fish was caught or the fishing method used, and that's why the Monterey aquarium cut to the chase with its "avoid" recommendation.
A quick look at some tuna brands:
Label says: dolphin safe
Web site says: "StarKist continues its practice of refusing to purchase tuna caught with gill or drift nets, which are known to be dangerous to many forms of marine life. StarKist condemns the use of these indiscriminate fishing methods that trap dolphins, whales, and other marine life along with the intended catch of fish." Read full statement here.
Observation: That's easy to say, as gill nets aren't really used, says Fitzgerald, the EDF policy specialist, adding, "Most tuna now are caught by purse seines or long lines, which can have lots of by-catch."
Label says: dolphin safe. "We are dedicated to the sustainability of ocean resources..."
Web site says: "Bumble Bee will not purchase tuna caught with gill or drift nets as use of these nets can sometimes entrap dolphins, other marine mammals, or birds." See full statement here.
Observation: Same as for StarKist.
Chicken of the Sea
Label says: wild caught, dolphin safe
Web site says: "All tuna purchased, processed and sold by Chicken of the Sea is dolphin-safe...period!" See full statement here.
Observation. That's easy to say--all tuna is wild caught. All tuna sold in the US must be dolphin safe if it's labeled "dolphin safe."
Label says: some state "amigo del delfin" (literally, friend of the dolphin, or dolphin safe)
Web site says: nothing about the environment, as far as we can tell
Observation: Seen in some Mexican specialty shops in the US, this Mexican brand chases and nets dolphins to catch the tuna swimming beneath, warns Earth Island Institute, which has the same complaint about TUNY-brand Mexican tuna.
Get a load of this: If a Dolores tuna label DOES NOT claim it's dolphin safe, then it's legal for sale in the U.S. But if the label claims it's dolphin safe, then its sale is illegal.
Could more Mexican tuna reach U.S stores eventually? Mexico is challenging the "dolphin safe" label before the World Trade Organization with an eye to export .more tuna. A decision is expected in February.
Label says: dolphin safe, caught one at a time by hook and line
Web site says: shark safe, turtle safe, whale safe... (more)
Observation: At around $3.60 for three ounces, this micro-cannery based in Washington is sold online, costs more than mainstream brands, and is hard to find in stores. But it appears to meet Monterey aquarium's standards.
Label says: dolphin safe, U.S. troll caught, gourmet
Web site says: most of its tuna is caught in Pacific Northwest
Observation: At about $5 for six ounces of albacore, this micro-cannery brand sold online and based in Gig Harbor, Wash., costs more than mainstream brands and is hard to find in stores. But it appears to meet Monterey aquarium's standards.
Label says: dolphin safe, turtle safe, no long lines, sustainably caught, pole/troll handline caught
Web site says: "There is virtually no by-catch associated with the trolling or pole and line techniques, which are regarded as the best fishing methods for tuna, a fact worth remembering when you buy. This Eco-consensus is supported by many Non-Government Organizations including: The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, SeaChoice."
Observation: It costs more -- we paid $3.29 for albacore and $2.29 for skipjack, both five ounces, at a Seattle natural foods cooperative. Find a retailer list here.
In the end, the Monterey aquarium's advice is refreshingly simple to grasp, as advice elsewhere conflicts because of the complexity of the tuna fishery. It's best to eat skipjack (light) tuna in dolphin-safe U.S. cans -- or no tuna at all, says Mark Palmer, associate director of the International Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island Institute. Blue Frontier Campaign president David Helvarg says an occasional tuna steak caught by hook and line "is a guilty pleasure I'd still indulge in."
That said: "Canned tuna as a regular treat for the kids," Helvarg believes, "is something we ought to start consigning to the past."
What else is in your tuna can? Group urges boycott