From Catch to Can: Seafood Buyers Can Help Improve Tuna Oversight

Active participation in fisheries management decisions can support a more traceable, sustainable seafood industry

Navigate to:

From Catch to Can: Seafood Buyers Can Help Improve Tuna Oversight
Three different canned tuna brands are pictured close-up on a market shelf.
Canned tuna make up a massive part of the global seafood trade, positioning the industry as a key stakeholder to improve fisheries management.
Artur Widak NurPhoto

For over 200 years, seafood has been preserved in cans. These shelf-stable products are some of the most popular and affordable forms of animal protein consumed in the world, with a global economic value of at least $30 billion in 2021. Tuna is the most popular canned seafood; in fact, nearly three-quarters of the total global tuna catch ends up in cans.

Continuing to meet consumer demand and ensure healthy fish populations for the long term requires strong fisheries management. This is especially true given the global scale of the canned tuna industry, which includes an extensive international supply chain that can make it difficult to effectively trace fish from boat to store and to enforce policies.

In addition, fishing and other activity that occurs beyond the view of authorities creates opportunities for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, human rights violations and more. This can cause lasting harm to the fisheries, communities and markets that rely on these fish.

Various regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) meet annually to make important decisions, with tuna RFMOs meetings starting in April. When these meetings occur, retailers, seafood manufacturers and other large corporate buyers should use their leverage to advocate for stronger rules to ensure consumers can purchase the sustainable products they demand.

Consumer access to sustainable canned tuna depends on accountable regional management

For most tuna fisheries, the rules that establish catch limits, in addition to gear type and the location and timing of fishing activity, are set by RFMOs, which are mandated to manage commercially important migratory fish stocks. RFMOs are made up of member States with fishing interests in each RFMO’s areas of responsibility.

Rules made at RFMOs affect the transparency, sustainability and economics of the canned tuna supply chain at nearly every step.

RFMOs can—and should—improve oversight at sea by requiring increased observer coverage and vessel monitoring systems on ships to enhance the amount and quality of data collected, which in turn can inform management and enforcement. RFMOs should also adopt an innovative management approach called harvest strategies, which prioritizes long-term fishery health by agreeing in advance to adjust catch limits and other measures based on fish population size. This shifts the perspective from short-term reactive decision-making to proactive management. At port, RFMOs should establish port State measures that align with the Port State Measures Agreement to keep illegally caught fish from entering the supply chain and mixing with legal and sustainable catches.

RFMO attendees are primarily government delegates, along with key stakeholders such as the fishing industry and seafood processors. But retailers and other large buyers are rarely present. This imbalance can lead to decisions being made in favor of short-term economic gain for fishers instead of the long-term health of the fishery or increasing the stability of the market. By providing that important perspective, seafood buyers can help keep RFMOs better focused on their mandate to manage fishery stocks sustainably.

How seafood buyers can influence RFMO policy

To ensure their voices are heard, seafood buyers need to directly engage with the decision makers at RFMOs. There are multiple ways to do that, including by:

  • Attending RFMO meetings and providing direct input into the development of fisheries management decisions, including through working with their country’s delegation to these meetings. 
  • Hosting RFMO side events to demonstrate that seafood buyers want to prioritize sustainability and improved fisheries oversight and promote cooperation among member States and stakeholders. 
  • Contacting the heads of national delegations of the RFMO member States that play a prominent role in sourcing or selling tuna to highlight retailer priorities. 
  • Joining an industry coalition such as the Global Tuna Alliance or engaging with their suppliers to insist they also advocate for stronger fisheries management and oversight by RFMOs and their member States.

While it is ultimately the responsibility of governments and RFMOs to ensure long-term sustainability of the global seafood supply, corporate seafood buyer engagement can help drive the changes urgently needed to best provide the seafood options customers want and ensure verifiable sustainability from catch to can.

Katy Hladki is a senior officer and Eric Walton is a senior associate working on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.

National Homeownership Month

Article

37 Researchers Working to Transform Biomedical Science

Quick View
Article

Biomedical researchers are on the front lines of scientific innovation. From responding to global pandemics to pioneering lifesaving cancer treatments, these researchers push past scientific boundaries to solve pressing health challenges. For nearly 40 years, The Pew Charitable Trusts has supported more than 1,000 early-career biomedical scientists committed to this discovery.

Cans of tuna are seen in a section of a supermarket of Nantes, western France
Cans of tuna are seen in a section of a supermarket of Nantes, western France
Issue Brief

Retailers Can Help Build a Sustainable Seafood Market

Quick View
Issue Brief

Marine fisheries are a significant component of the global economy; tuna fisheries alone are worth more than $40 billion annually.

Multicolored cans of tuna line three supermarket shelves in Spain. The products, labeled with Spanish names, come in jars, cans and boxes, and are blue, red, green and yellow.
Multicolored cans of tuna line three supermarket shelves in Spain. The products, labeled with Spanish names, come in jars, cans and boxes, and are blue, red, green and yellow.
Article

Seafood Retailers Can Build on Sustainability Commitments

Quick View
Article

With catch worth more than US $40 billion dollars per year, tuna is one of the most important species for supermarkets and other companies in the global seafood industry. So it is critical that its catch is closely monitored to help protect the sustainability of the species.

Composite image of modern city network communication concept

Learn the Basics of Broadband from Our Limited Series

Sign up for our four-week email course on Broadband Basics

Quick View

How does broadband internet reach our homes, phones, and tablets? What kind of infrastructure connects us all together? What are the major barriers to broadband access for American communities?

Pills illustration
Pills illustration

What Is Antibiotic Resistance—and How Can We Fight It?

Sign up for our four-week email series The Race Against Resistance.

Quick View

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs,” are a major threat to modern medicine. But how does resistance work, and what can we do to slow the spread? Read personal stories, expert accounts, and more for the answers to those questions in our four-week email series: Slowing Superbugs.