Australians are one of the world's largest per capita consumers of canned tuna, gobbling up around 32,000 tonnes a year.
When it comes to shopping their number one consideration for most is price, but if consumers don't purchase sustainably then ocean fish numbers will continue to plummet and as they become scarce prices will steadily rise.
Labelling on cans is supposed to help consumers make sustainable choices when they enter the supermarket to ensure fish stocks remain healthy. But a new survey found 45 per cent are confused by what they should be looking for, and 40 per cent are unable to easily find sustainable products. That’s despite most saying they want to reduce their impact on the planet, and one third saying they feel guilty when they don't buy a product with an eco-label.
Confusion around labelling was uncovered by a survey of 1023 people that was commissioned by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the company responsible for the tiny blue seafood packaging logo with a white fish on it. Most of us have seen it on John West cans — it's the only major canned tuna brand to carry the logo in Australia.
What do the labels on tuna cans mean?
In Australia, the majority of tuna consumed is not independently certified as sustainable and MSC warns this is a “major concern”, because overfishing is “significant”.
There are a variety of labels on tuna cans and some of them don’t mean much at all. While dolphin-safe logos are prevalent, these labels sometimes just mean drift nets were not used in the catching process. They are not always an indication that the fish were harvested sustainably.
What the MSC logo means
The MSC logo means the fish you’re eating are wild-caught, and verified as sourced sustainably by the organisation. For a fishery to be certified it needs to enter an assessment process which normally takes 12 to 18 months, during which three principles are examined:
Fish stock health.
Impact on the ecosystem.
Robust management regime.
MSC examines the impact on dolphins, but also harm done to other species and the wider ecosystem, its Oceania program director Anne Gabriel told Yahoo News Australia. “Fisheries may not be interacting with dolphins, but they might have a really low stock health — they might be interacting with stingrays or sharks.
What the MSC logo doesn’t mean
MSC only assesses sustainability, not animal welfare. “Because we’re outcome-based, you could be using longline or pole and line,” Ms Gabriel said.
Technically, the MSC logo also doesn’t mean an endangered species isn’t being impacted, but MSC is unlikely to certify a company that targets them because doing so would probably impact sustainability.
If a fishery specifically targets a species listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) isn't eligible for MSC certification. Operators must also show they are not hindering the recovery of critically endangered species.
What tuna consumers should consider
Greenpeace has some clear advice it believes consumers should consider at the supermarket:
Avoid bluefin and bigeye tuna as they are critically endangered.
Eat less yellowfin tuna, particularly if it's caught outside of Australia.
Buy tuna that's pole and line or handline caught.
Consumers responsible for ensuring tuna remains affordable
Tuna Australia represents domestic fishers and processors and all of its product, most of which is fresh, is certified by MSC. Its CEO David Ellis understands why many Australians are choosing to buy cheap products. “In today's world, the cost of living is rising dramatically. Quite often, when it's your own survival at stake, you're going to just look at how you can put food on the table,” he said.
Canned tuna has traditionally not been an expensive product but that’s largely been due to unsustainable practices and many species now face extinction, like the critically endangered bluefin tuna.
Ensuring other species of tuna are not also driven to extinction will ultimately come down to consumer choices, Mr Ellis believes.
“The consumer will bring about change, because as soon as a company's economic survival is threatened, they will innovate and they will change really quickly,” he said. “Unless they're threatened, they'll continue to do what they're doing.”
Do you have a story tip? Email: email@example.com.