Sustainable Tuna and Corporate Responsibility: A Letter to the Editor

As I was reading an article on Pan-Seared Tuna Steaks out of my favorite Cook's Illustrated Magazine, I bristled a bit at its "Tuna Buying Guide." 

The guide outlined four different types of tuna, two of which I knew to be red-listed under Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch.

Mad respect for the Fishlove Project and Lizzy Jagger (Mick's daughter) atop a [sustainably] caught/dead tuna...Thanks Buzzfeed for the photo!

The problem was that Cook's Illustrated made no mention to readers that in purchasing the tuna that they were suggesting, said readers would be harming the delicate balance of the ocean's current fish populations.

Perhaps a company so large should consider the implications of what it means to put out a guide.

Overfishing is an issue that people are slowly becoming more aware of, yet many remain blissfully ignorant of the fact that we are flippantly destroying the world's oceans.

Why worry about the next few decades when we can enjoy our sushi now??

seared tuna recipe
This makes me hyperventilate a bit     Photo cred: Miss Renaissance

For those of you who see the problem inherent in the question I just posed, please read on.

I wrote this e-mail to Cook's Illustrated and I want to share it with you to hopefully inspire you to think about your seafood purchases, and maybe even to take action by doing something similar.

"To Whom it May Concern:

I am a die-hard and enthusiastic fan of Cook's Illustrated. I read your literature faithfully and consider your recipes to be my cooking Bible.

Nevertheless, it troubles me that as I read your Tuna Buying Guide in the 2012 Modern Classics issue, there is no mention of the fact that Yellowfin and Bluefin tuna (two of the four listed types) are on the red list under Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. Yellowfin, according to their thorough research on preserving the world's tuna population, should only be consumed when caught through troll, pole, and single-line methods, and bluefin should be avoided at all costs.

I understand that the Cook's Illustrated mission is to create the best recipes, period. But I believe that there is certain responsibility when in a position such as yours that has so many faithful followers. I am not suggesting that you align yourself with Greenpeace and begin preaching the "goods and evils" of fish consumption, but I am suggesting a tiny (or even lengthy) write-up of what your readers can do to ensure that the ocean keeps providing us with all that yummy tuna. A mere sentence saying "many seafood watch agencies suggest avoiding the purchase of Yellowfin/Bluefin tuna unless caught using sustainable methods" would at least let readers know that everything is not hunky-dory in that majestic ocean world. It leaves the choice up to them, while Cook's Illustrated is simply providing objective information.

Of course, you can claim that this is not an issue that involves an actual recipe, so Cook's Illustrated would rather not open a Pandora’s box of sustainability suggestions. But the fact is that if tuna doesn't last in the oceans, it definitely can't last in your recipe books. And what we can certainly agree on is that we all want tuna to last.

There are many similar food sustainability issues that we could discuss, but the importance of ocean sustainability is arguably not the same as eating free-range eggs, organic tomatoes, or grass-fed beef. It is an issue about fish survival under careless human consumption--all emotions and opinions aside.

Consider this what you will: a suggestion, a plea, a wake-up call. Only please, let your readers know that what they buy matters when it comes to fish!

Thank you for your time!"

Turns out that tuna are actually living breathing things that just might enjoy life

So there we have it. It is a simple letter, with a point made without seeming too pushy.

I want to finish this post talking about how that cheap can of "dolphin-safe" tuna typically finds its way onto your pantry shelves.

Most canned tuna is caught by a "long line" method, wherein a long line with many attached hooks is dropped into the ocean to float and catch tuna.

What really happens during this process, according to Tristram Stuart's book Waste, is that the longline, which can be up to 78 miles long with thousands of hooks,

"Gives rise to a discard rate [of non-tuna specimens] more than 71 times greater than fishing for [tuna] on an ordinary pole and line"

He goes on to describe that:

"Some new 'dolphin-friendly' methods of catching tuna, which can involve surrounding and scooping up entire marine habitats, can actually kill even more kinds of other fish, turtles, and sharks. For 15,721 tons of tuna caught using these dolphin-friendly methods in the eastern Pacific, fishing fleets killed 15,737 tons of sharks, rays, and other fish--a by-catch rate of over 50 per cent."

Let me say this now: I love tuna.

I love seafood in general. I love food in general. In my past, I have eaten enough cheap canned tuna to put a cat to shame and I am not proud of it.

So I am the first to understand that it is painful not to be able to eat whatever you want, when you want it. Sometimes it hurts to have to consult your conscience over a grocery list. But consult it we must.

If your interest is piqued, be sure to look for the "troll, pole, and single-line" caught designations on your tuna cans and raw tuna purchases.

This essentially means that a line catches individual tunas and nothing else. Sustainable tuna can be easily found in most health food stores, but being the bulk-buyer that I am, I typically buy mine by the case on Amazon to save money.

For other useful websites to guide your seafood purchases, visit...

  • Food and Water Watch
  • Blue Ocean
  • National Resources Defense Council
  • WWF

  • and of course...

  • Montery Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

  • And maybe someday I'll forgive myself for all those .99 cent cans of tuna I consumed throughout college...

    (If this post makes you strangely hungry for that chicken of the sea, buy something sustainable and make my Authentic Nicoise Salad!)

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