May 2, 2017 marks the first-ever World Tuna Day. While you may think of it as a good excuse to head to your favorite sushi bar, that wasn’t quite what the United Nations’ General Assembly had in mind.
The day is actually intended to raise awareness around seafood sustainability—an issue that critically affects tuna, one of the most commonly eaten fish worldwide. Its popularity means there’s big money in reeling it in (especially the severely overfished bluefin species) so the tuna business is rife with unsustainable practices as well as illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing that affects food security and economic livelihoods around the world.
Sustainable seafood is something Sean Wittenberg, founder of canned tuna company Safe Catch, thinks about a lot. In addition to figuring out how to test mercury content in tuna, he is also committed to sustainable fishing practices and ocean purity efforts for this company and the industry as a whole. With 13 years (and counting) in the seafood business, he certainly understands the challenges he’s up against. We recently spoke with Sean to learn more about this important issue.
What does it mean for seafood to be considered sustainable?
Within the tuna industry, there are three conventional pillars: biomass, fish mortality, and bycatch. Biomass refers to stock levels of the species and whether their survival is sustainable. Fish mortality examines whether more fish are being caught than being born. Bycatch looks at whether fishermen are catching what they set out to catch.
At Safe Catch, we think there needs to be a fourth criteria, and that’s ocean purity. It needs to be a bigger part of the dialogue within the industry as something that’s a critical factor in the sustainability and health of our seafood.
What kinds of tuna do you use in your products and how do you catch them?
We use skipjack and albacore in our products. Skipjack is the most plentiful tuna species in the world, and what we use in our Elite product. It spawns year-round and is very resilient fish, but bycatch is a problem. The best ways to fish them are pole and troll or FAD-free, which is what we use.
A FAD is a Fish-Aggregating Device, which is just a naturally or artificially created landmass. Fish naturally gravitate to it for nutrients and the presence of little fish attracts bigger fish. Before you know it, there’s a whole ecosystem under the FAD.
FAD fishing means huge purse nets (also known as purse seines) wall off the area under the FAD and capture the whole ecosystem, including creatures you didn’t intend to catch, like turtles.
Ocean purity needs to be a bigger part of the dialogue within the industry as something that’s a critical factor in the sustainability and health of our seafood.
For our FAD-free method, our captains use spotter vessels and/or sonars to detect when a school of skipjack is swimming by and drop our nets. Unlike pole or line fishing, there’s no bait required, it’s less labor intensive, and actually has a lower carbon footprint because less boats are needed for a greater yield. We have a bycatch of under 0.3% with this method.
The other tuna we use is albacore, which has a seasonal birth cycle and matures slower than skipjack. Their stocks are more challenged, but not critically. FAD-free purse nets aren’t an option for this species so the two options are: long-lining (using one to two miles of leader and hundreds of baited hooks) and pole and troll fishing. The long-line method has a lot of bycatch because anything can be attracted to the bait. That’s why we use 100% pole and troll-caught albacore.
What about bluefin tuna?
Bluefin tuna is in the red in terms of biomass and fish mortality rates. No one should be eating it, but it’s considered a delicacy. The boom of the sushi industry around the world is really exacerbating the problem. A prized bluefin can go for a lot of money in world fish markets so it’s a high-value catch for fishermen. And the fishing industry is a difficult one in terms of changing mindsets because the business is often passed through generations. They’ve learned their fishing methods from their parents and grandparents so it’s difficult to even have a conversation about why certain techniques are dangerous for the environment. Many fishermen are trained to live catch to catch and season to season, but it’s in their best interest to be thinking about sustainability. I’m hoping we, as an industry, can work together to become stewards for ocean purity.
Why is sustainability especially important for tuna?
Bluefin is endangered, so it’s in critical condition. Unless people realize the gravity of the situation, we may reach a point where this species can’t be saved. It shouldn’t be eaten or fished until stocks can be restored. But albacore, yellowfin, and skipjack tuna stocks are in good shape and completely fine to eat.
The fishing industry is a difficult one in terms of changing mindsets because the business is often passed through generations.
What does Safe Catch do to ensure all the tuna used in its products were sustainably fished?
We partner with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program and follow its guidelines. We have an established process for checking all the certificates and paperwork when a boat comes in to make sure correct procedures were followed. The first thing we do is we inspect the fish for quality and then look at the sustainability piece, which means looking through the captain certificates and getting signoff from the independent observer. We’re making sure that the right type of fish are caught in the right waters with the right tackle. From there, the fish goes directly to our mercury testing station. We’ll buy the fish right there if it meets our standards.
If the standards aren’t met, then the fishermen will sell the fish to a different company. I don’t consider those bad fish—it’s just that our standards are so high! The fish we reject are often perfectly fine for healthy adults to eat, but our products have to be safe for pregnant women and small children so we don’t mess around.
How can consumers be sure they're buying/ordering sustainable fish from grocery stores and restaurants?
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program has really good guides for consumers and an app, but it really comes down to asking questions. Where’s the fish from? How was it caught? Is it sustainable? Wild salmon and sardines tend to be pretty good across the board. I never buy bluefin and bigeye tuna. For mercury reasons, I never buy bigger fish like swordfish, shark, and marlin. I eat a lot of yellowfin and skipjack tuna. Fish from Alaska tend to be sustainable because the state has great fishery programs. A lot of today’s sustainable seafood programs were modeled after theirs.
Our standards are so high! The fish we reject are often perfectly fine for healthy adults to eat, but our products have to be safe for pregnant women and small children so we don’t mess around.
What else can consumers do to support sustainable seafood?
Only buy sustainable seafood! I don’t think people realize how much their daily actions matter. Every time they buy a product, order a type of fish at a sushi bar, or click on something online, they’re casting a vote and making their preferences known. Bringing a little mindfulness to those habits will do a lot to help enact bigger changes.
It wasn’t until I created a product that allowed people to vote with their wallets that I started to be taken seriously in industry discussions about sustainable seafood. Our brand has a loyal customer base, which sends a message that ocean purity and sustainable fishing practices matter to people.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho