What's The Catch? Is Albacore Tuna truly sustainable?

Skipjack and bluefin are dirty words among conscientious diners, but a guilt-free alternative could see tuna back on the menu. Guy Adams boards a Californian fishing boat to find out whether albacore is truly sustainable

Sunday 22 November 2009 01:00 GMT

Silver-blue and shaped like a miniature torpedo, the albacore tuna is one of nature's great migrants. Fast and tough, it spends life on a constant journey, covering thousands of miles each year to gorge on anchovy, squid, and small crustaceans that inhabit the upper reaches of our planet's fragile and unimaginably vast oceans.

Most albacore measure two or three feet in length, and weigh around 30 pounds. But at the peak of their 10-year existence, they can tip the scales at twice that. Anglers call them "longfin", thanks to the distinctive, highly evolved pectorals that propel them at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour. Chefs seek out the delicious, pale, meaty flesh that inspires their other common nickname: "chicken of the sea".

There is, however, a third name that you can call this fish, perhaps the most important of all: "sustainable". Albacore is currently the only type of tuna that can be eaten responsibly; the sole species that happens to boast a healthy breeding population, that is commercially harvested in a manner which doesn't always involve the pointless destruction of hundreds of thousands of dolphins, sharks, rays and sea birds.

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you'll have read about the ecological crimes currently being committed in the name of seafood. You'll have seen the frightening statistics. In a generation, mankind has wiped out 90 per cent of the earth's fish stocks. The remaining 10 per cent is being removed from oceans at a rate of 95 million tonnes each year. In another generation, there will, at this rate, be almost nothing left.

Tuna, as a global staple, is on the front line of the now high-profile battle between conservationists and the fishing industry. Everyone, we've been told, should steer clear of it. If you're a celebrity munching the highly endangered bluefin in Nobu, you might as well be tucking into giant panda. If you're a Home Counties housewife emptying canned tuna into a salade Niçoise, you're sending skipjack the way of the dodo.

Now, though, a guilt-free alternative has finally hit British supermarkets: tinned albacore, caught in the Pacific by members of an organisation called the American Albacore Fishing Association (AAFA). It is the first tuna ever to get Marine Stewardship Council [MSC] certification as sustainable, a status signified by a blue, fish-shaped slogan on its label.

American albacore recently began being sold as own-label canned tuna by Sainsbury's, Tesco, Morrisons and Waitrose, for around £1.99 a tin. Should it catch on, it might, in its own way, become as common as the energy-saving lightbulb. British consumers eat 56,000 tonnes of tinned tuna a year; this, at last, gives us a chance to do so with a clear conscience.

The product is endorsed in the loftiest foodie circles. Tom Aikens, the Michelin-starred chef whose eponymous Chelsea restaurant has blazed a trail for sustainability in the world of gourmet cuisine, says its launch symbolises a revolution in public attitudes to the seafood they put in their shopping bags and on their plates. "There's been incredible change in the past few years. People are demanding sustainable fish, but it can still be very hard to get," he says. "Even I sometimes struggle, and I make it my business. Products such as this give consumers a choice. They need to have these kinds of alternatives. Otherwise fish will simply become extinct."

As to the contents of the can, he adds: "Obviously I can't charge £30 for a main course and serve tinned tuna, so I'm not going to tell you that I'd use this stuff in my restaurants. But for the sort of things it'll be used in, such as sandwiches and jacket potatoes, tinned albacore more than does the job. And it's very nutritious."

So what exactly is this remarkably ethical, glamorously endorsed, healthy food product? Where does the American albacore come from? How is it caught? By what process does it end up in a can on your supermarket shelf? And should we really trust the little blue label that calls it "sustainable"? You'll have to go all the way to San Diego to find out.

Each summer, vast shoals of albacore swim north, from the waters of South America and the South Pacific, to cooler seas off California, Oregon and Washington State. Each shoal holds tens of thousands of tuna, and measures several miles across. Among the people trying to track them down is a cigar-chomping, 48-year-old fisherman called Jack Webster.

Webster owns the Millie G, one of 75 vessels that make up the AAFA fleet. Every June, he and four crew members fill ' the 60ft boat with food and fuel, kiss goodbye to their wives and families, and set sail from their home port in San Diego, the prosperous US city perched next to the Mexican border. God willing, they return in November.

A few miles from shore, they'll sling a small net into the ocean, pulling up a few hundredweight of anchovy. These small silvery fish, which are later to become bait, are kept alive in a water-filled tank below deck as Millie G chugs west. American territory extends just 200 miles; after that, the fishing vessel is in international waters. Sometimes, they travel for weeks, crossing the International Date Line.

To you or me, one patch of the Pacific would look the same as another: blue, clear, endless. But to Webster, it is a sort of jigsaw puzzle. A small ripple on the horizon or the silver flash of a jumping fish half a mile away might indicate the presence of a shoal of albacore. Seabirds – particularly terns or seahawks – are another sign. It takes patience to track down the shoals of migrating fish. And luck. "Ninety per cent of fishing is looking. At best, 10 per cent is catching," he says. "The fish are only on surface a short time. They're elusive, they come and go, and there's a tremendous amount of water for us to cover. But sometimes you get 'fish sense' – a feeling there's something around. It can be as subtle as seeing a few birds. And then... bang! Suddenly the ocean is full of silver."

Webster catches his tuna the old-fashioned way: using poles and lines, baited with small metal and rubber lures. When he hits albacore, one of his crew begins "chumming", or throwing live anchovies into the sea around the boat. The other three stand in a small knee-high basket, suspended perilously from the stern, and attempt to extract them from the ocean.

This part is art as much as science. The lure (called a "squid") is dropped a couple of feet beneath the water's surface, and tweaked sharply upwards. Every now and then, a fish will strike. Using the pole for leverage, a fisherman will flick the albacore on deck, shake it off the hook, and return the lure immediately to the water. The process continues as long as the shoal is there, and fish are biting.

"This is something we have a lot of passion for," says Webster. "It's just incredibly exciting. I used to sport-fish, but this type of commercial fishing is one level higher in terms of the excitement and rush, and the high you get. It's sport-fishing on steroids. That's how I see it. You get this chase and this hunt. You've got to use your gut feelings, and work out the fish and what they're up to. It gets into your blood."

The Millie G has six storage tanks, which can freeze and hold 35 US tonnes, or 70,000 pounds, of tuna. When they're full, a process that normally takes several weeks, Webster will return to the nearest port, and drop off his cargo. He stays at sea as long as albacore remain in US or international seas, or the arrival of hurricane season permits. At the end of the season, profits are split between the crew.

It's a skilful, beguiling and labour-intensive process, a world removed from the means by which the vast majority of the world's tuna is removed from the ocean. This, of course, is the key to its sustainability. Webster's crew use poles and lines to selectively remove a small number of fish (the "biting" ones) from a large shoal; by contrast, most fisheries have developed more productive, and damaging, techniques.

When you see the words "line-caught" on a tuna steak, don't be fooled into thinking it was ethically captured. The chances are that it was instead hooked by "longlines" – enormous lengths of nylon baited with thousands of lures, which stretch back many, many miles. Sometimes an individual longline can extend the distance from London to Brighton.

This causes significant "bycatch", the industry term for the process by which sea creatures are accidentally caught, killed, and discarded as rubbish. As much as 20 per cent of the weight of tuna caught by longlines is chucked away as "bycatch". Often, casualties include turtles, dolphins, sharks, rays and endangered albatross, which mistake the glistening lures for an easy meal. Broken longlines can drift across the ocean, snagging and killing marine life, for years.

Most other tuna sold in the UK is caught via "purse-seine" netting: encircling a shoal with a large net and effectively scooping it from the sea. For years, this method also killed vast numbers of dolphins. Now, most cans are labelled "dolphin-friendly", meaning the net is raised in a manner that allows the cute mammals to escape.

Unfortunately, purse-seining still kills swordfish, turtles and myriad other creatures. A recent Greenpeace report revealed that this is undermining not just the sustainability of tuna, but also the viability of other marine life. "Dolphin-friendly" tuna sitting in your kitchen cupboard is extremely unfriendly to other creatures, it concluded.

In stark contrast, AAFA albacore has no bycatch. The only fish killed by Webster and his crew (and the 74 others like them) are the ones that end up being eaten. Pacific stocks of albacore are also in robust shape: at present, just seven per cent of the total is caught each year. As a species, it isn't ' as critically endangered as the prize species of bluefin and bigeye; neither is it hammered like skipjack or yellowtail.

"In terms of the MSC label, we have some scepticism, particularly with regard to fisheries it endorses that are catching things such as Alaskan pollock, Australian rock lobster, hoki and Patagonian toothfish," says Willie Mackenzie, a fisheries campaigner for Greenpeace. "But I'm not going to say everything they do is rubbish. Albacore is a relatively healthy type of tuna. Pole and line is the best and cleanest way to catch it. So in this instance, it's hard to be critical."

Spend time with Webster and his colleagues, though, and it soon becomes clear that the American albacore fishery isn't just a sustainable source of tuna. It is also a resource that helps protect a way of life.

San Diego was built on albacore. A century ago, when Mediterranean immigrants headed to the American west, they were amazed by the riches of its ocean. Fish were caught within a few miles of the coast, in their thousands. By the 1960s, the city was known as the tuna capital of the world. Its port was home to almost 1,000 fishing vessels, big and small.

Today, just a dozen tuna boats are left. Dogged by over-regulation, or financially ruined by the volatile price of seafood, most of the commercial fleet disappeared during the 1980s and 1990s. The harbour berths where tuna vessels once sat now play host to vast aircraft carriers, or cruise-ships, ferrying overweight tourists to the Baja Mexico.

This represents a particularly pointless development, since Jack Webster's albacore ought to be a valuable, premium product. Pole-caught fish are not battered and bruised, as their net-caught siblings are. Neither do they die at sea hours before being landed, as with tuna killed by longlines. They are in better, tastier condition than mass-produced rivals.

Their flesh is also healthier. By targeting fish feeding on the surface of the water, traditional pole-and-line boats such as Webster's kill smaller, younger specimens with low mercury levels, and leaner flesh than their mass-market rivals. Though he might catch less than a longline fisherman, logic dictates that he ought to be able to sell it for more.

Logic has historically been wrong, though. Webster and his colleagues' albacore has historically been sold to wholesalers on the same commodity market as mass-produced tuna, at exactly the same price. With ever-rising fuel and insurance costs, the entire financial model for their industry had therefore, in recent decades, been all but destroyed.

In 2003, they decided to do something about it. Six fishing families formed the AAFA, with a view to creating demand for sustainable, line-caught albacore, and marketing it as a valuable product. Today, the association has grown to 75 vessels, and is responsible for more than half the albacore caught off America's Pacific coast each year. "We were founded on the premise that these families, these fishermen, needed a voice," says Webster's wife, Natalie, who runs the AAFA. "In the past, they would leave dock not knowing what they'd be paid for fish, not knowing where they would sell the fish. And the perpetual message from buyers was that the market was bad, so fishermen should accept bottom, bottom prices."

"We knew that if we marketed our product properly, talked about its low mercury levels, and method of harvest and handling, the public would respond." And so it proved: in the past three years, the price per tonne at which they've sold albacore has almost doubled, from $1,275 to nearer $2,400.

The AAFA also began making its own-label canned tuna, at a factory in Oregon, where albacore steaks are packed into tins and steamed. It is now stocked by every branch of the US retailer Whole Foods. (The canned albacore sold in the UK is made by European food-processing firm MCM.) "As soon as we started telling our story, we had consumers wanting to support us. So we needed something to drive them to. We needed a product," says Natalie. "Now we have it." The result, for the first time in a generation, has been financial stability.

The effect of this change is perhaps best illustrated by albacore fisherman Bobby Blocker, whose father and grandfather both ran tuna boats out of San Diego. Now, he says, he feels confident that his son Waylon, 23, who stands on the dock behind him, can, if he so desires, become the fourth-straight Blocker to make a living from the seas.

"AAFA really turned around this industry for us," he says, from the bridge of his boat Her Grace. "It gave control back to fishermen. We are now selling a brand, not just a fish. Now I feel there's a future for this boat. It will be around a long time after I die and it's an incredible thing to know that it will still have people fishing in it."

And that's the greatest legacy of this sustainable brand of tinned tuna: it not only allows us to fill kitchen cupboards without dangerously denting fish stocks, it also helps a hardy community of fishermen while safeguarding the knowledge and fishing methods that built their industry. It's proof, if you like, that a good thing really can come in small cans.

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