Tuna is not a fish whose personality you can pin down in three well-chosen adjectives. It is the trusty canned good that can get you through a zombie attack; the lunch box staple; the hiker’s pouched indulgence; the pricey epitome of raw elegance. Alive, tuna is known for being big, fast, beautiful, and one hell of a fish to have at the end of your line.
One of the secrets behind tuna’s many personas is that it isn’t just one fish, it’s a whole extended family, and each member has its own unique personality. So, without further ado, let’s meet five of the most popular tunas.
Bluefin (Northern/ Southern)
Personality: Slow-growing, fast-going. Biggest, oldest, and wisest of the Tunas (lives for over 20 years).
Most frequently seen as: sushi, sashimi.
Home waters: Northern Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean/ Far Southern Pacific, Atlantic, Indian.
Caught with: Purse seine and long line/ Pole and line, surface troll, long line.
Status: Very threatened. If encountered in a restaurant, just say no.
“The popular second cousin”
Personality: Can’t stay in one place for long, smallish, matures quickly (1 year), reproductively active.
Most frequently seen as: canned chunks.
Home waters: Tropical Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic.
Caught with: Purse seine (mostly), some pole & line.
Status: A safe bet. Some local overfishing, but hard to globally overfish because they are so reproductively active.
“Uncle Long-Fin ”
Personality: Fondly called “chicken” by other family members for his pale, dry meat; popular with Americans; has a very long pectoral fin good for high-fiving.
Most frequently seen as: canned, cheaper sushi, frozen, fresh.
Home waters: Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian.
Caught with: long line, pole-and line, troll.
Status: Mixed. Pacific = good; Southern Atlantic = overfished; Northern Atlantic = unknown Indian = not great; Mediterranean = unknown.
“The gregarious younger sibling”
Personality: Likes to hangout with other groups of yellowfin and swim with dolphins. Second only to Skipjack in popularity and plentitude. Big and fast. Older at maturity than Skipjack (second cousin) and younger at maturity than Bigeye (the older sibling) requiring 3-4 years to find itself before starting a family. Often confused for Bigeye. Hates it when that happens.
Most frequently seen as: canned, sushi, fresh fillets, loins and steaks, frozen loins.
Home waters: Tropical and temperate Pacific, Atlantic, Indian.
Caught with: purse seine, long line, pole and line.
Status: Mostly good. Only Atlantic Ocean stock is unsure.
“The older sibling”
Personality: Likes to go deep into things, especially water, which it can comfortably do insulated by its scholarly layer of fat; older at maturity (7-8 years) than the younger one. Often confused for Yellowfin. Hates it when that happens.
Most frequently seen as: fresh fillets (sashimi), fresh (whole fish)
Home waters: Tropical and temperate Pacific, Indian, Atlantic
Caught with: long line, purse seine, pole and line, troll
Status: Mixed. US caught = good. Indian and Pacific pole/troll = good. Although some fishing methods in other locations may be okay, many are currently rated as unsustainable or overfished, particularly in the Western Central Pacific and Atlantic.
How can I tell if my tuna is sustainable?
Sustainable tuna is caught in a way that doesn’t catch a lot of things other than tuna (bycatch), destroy habitat, or send a population into collapse. Here are three things to look into when determining if your tuna is sustainable or not:
1. Harvest method: Some harvesting methods are associated with high levels of bycatch and habitat destruction.
2. Management: Good management can reduce bycatch and habitat destruction associated with harvesting, and prevent overfishing.
3. Stock status: A few tuna stocks are dangerously overfished, such as bluefin stocks and some albacore stocks.
It’s really a combination of these three factors that determines whether a tuna is sustainably harvested or not. Seafood Watch provides a handy guide to help you pick out environmentally safe tuna.
Who’s watching out for the Tunas?
All of the Tunas are intrepid globetrotters, so monitoring the health of their populations has to be a global effort. Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) set catch limits and monitor tuna stocks within their participating countries.
Salty Girl Tuna Recommendations:
The Dupuy family, owner of Ventura Fish Company, was the first longliner out of California to target bigeye tuna. Former captain Pete Dupuy worked with fisheries managers to get regulations and restrictions placed on the fishery. Today, an observer from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) rides along on each trip to measure fishing impacts. Results are published and accessible to the public so that consumers know Ventura Fish Co fish are caught with minimal bycatch and almost no impact to marine mammals. Ventura Fish Co sells directly to consumers and businesses in Ventura, CA.
Safe Catch is a true innovator in the world of canned tuna. Not only are their tuna traceable and sustainably sourced, they are also individually tested for mercury content using technology developed by the company. Safe Catch uses its testing technology to pick out tuna that don’t meet strict mercury criteria so it can guarantee customers skipjack tuna with ten times less mercury than the FDA limit and albacore tuna with three times less mercury than the FDA limit. Safe Catch products are sold online and can also be in found in grocery stores.
Salty Girl Seafood now offers sustainable Smoked Albacore Tuna in our online store. Sign up for our newsletter to receive discounts and updates on new products!
Fact or Fishy
We've had so many questions about finding sustainable seafood that we've decided to share our knowledge! Below are some of the FAQs about tuna.
Does all tuna have high levels of mercury?
Like most sea creatures higher up the food chain, the Tunas contain higher than average amounts of mercury. Whether the amount is “high” or not depends on how old/ big the tuna is (older/ bigger = more mercury), where it feeds, and which part of the tuna you eat (fatty part = less mercury; lean = more mercury). Lean Bluefin (Bluefin akami) and bigeye generally have the highest mercury levels, while yellowfin and fatty Bluefin (Bluefin toro) generally have the lowest. Albacore caught specifically in the U.S. or British Columbia is also considered a safe choice because it is caught when it’s still young. Canned tuna also generally have lower levels of mercury than non-canned because they tend to be smaller fish, while sushi-grade tuna have higher levels of mercury because they are larger, leaner fish.
Within the world of canned tuna, there is also a continuum:
- Chunk light = blend of different species (higher in mercury)
- Chunk white = Albacore (higher in mercury, unless American or Canadian)
- Canned light = skipjack (lower in mercury)
I love tuna and want to eat it every day, but I should resist this temptation?
Yes, especially if you’re a child, are pregnant, or nursing.
Different sources give quite different numbers for what the “safe” amount of tuna to consume actually is. Recommendations for canned tuna fall between the FDA and EPA guidelines (eat more tuna) and the Got Mercury? Calculator developed by Turtle Island Restoration Network (eat less tuna).
Is Ahi tuna ok for me to eat?
In moderation, all tuna are fine to eat and have considerable health benefits, which should be weighed against the potential health issues from mercury. Ahi sushi refers to either bigeye or yellowfin raw tuna. Bigeye generally has more mercury than yellowfin because it is usually larger when caught.
Is tuna ranching bad?
Tuna ranches promise to do a good thing– supplement wild tuna stocks that aren’t in great shape, especially Bluefin. While the promise is good, the reality is not. First, most operational farms catch young tuna and then raise them in captivity, which still depletes the stock rather than supplements it. Second, because of a loophole in regulations, the captured tuna are not counted towards management quotas and go unregulated. Third, because tuna are top predators, they need to eat a whole lot of fish before reaching market size- about 20kg of fish for 1 kg of tuna, to be more precise. This puts pressure on other fisheries and makes tuna ranching unsustainable.
Author: Smadar Levy In 2012, Smadar volunteered as a teacher in the Marshall Islands. Witnessing the environmental challenges faced by island communities led her to UCSB’s Bren School where she is a master’s student specializing in Environmental Economics & Politics with a focus in Communications. Smadar finds greatest fulfillment when creatively building connections among people and ideas that will help solve environmental problems.