In 1950, when tuna usually ended up in sandwiches and
casseroles, the worldwide catch totaled an estimated 660,000 tons
(600,000 metric tons).
Today that annual number has grown to more than 7
million tons (6.6 million metric tons) as the fish has gone gourmet and
demand has soared.
The tuna boom has led to a host of concerns
about the global fishing business, the state of our oceans, and the
health impact of consuming an apex predator.
Which kind of tuna is
best to buy is a complicated question because it involves a number of
"There are health concerns and culinary needs as
well as choices based on sustainability," says Valerie Craig, who
manages the National Geographic Seafood Decision Guide.
"How can you know about all those issues for every species?"
first thing to know is that what we call tuna is actually several
different kinds of fish.
Each has been affected by the fish's boom in
popularity, but some are suffering drastic declines in population.
Bluefin tuna, for instance—featured in the March issue of National Geographic magazine
been so overfished that they can't reproduce fast enough to replace
what's caught. If you care about sustainability, they should be on your
How fish are caught
also affects their sustainability.
can be especially devastating because it involves one line that can
have 3,000 baited hooks and stretch for up to 50 miles (80.5
The hooks dangle at a depth between 328 feet (100 meters)
and 492 feet (150 meters), where the largest tuna—such as the threatened
bluefin—tend to swim.
The hooks also catch more than 80 kinds of
nontargeted creatures, including endangered sea turtles, which often die
on the line before the fishing vessel reels in the catch.
after the biggest fish also serves up health concerns to the people who
Big tunas like bluefin feed high on the food chain, so they
ingest all the mercury that their prey and their prey's prey have taken
The U.S. government offers guidelines
for pregnant women, nursing mothers, and small children, but other
consumers are also concerned about how to balance the health benefits of
eating fish against the adverse effects of mercury.
A good general
rule: The bigger and older the fish, the bigger the risk.
advice is to study up before you go to the supermarket or a restaurant.
A good guide outlines the kinds of tuna, where they're fished, and what
kinds of gear are used to catch them in different parts of the world.
It may also make suggestions about the greenest and healthiest choices.
In addition to the National Geographic guide, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch
offers printable regional pocket guides as well as a smartphone app, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fishwatch website offers a list of seafood profiles
that include tuna. These three sources are the best at keeping up with the latest changes in the tuna business.
Ultimatuna, the reproductive orgy of the tuna
To help sort through the issues, here's a basic rundown of the fish sold at supermarkets and restaurants in the U.S.:
In Cans or Pouches
Tuna labeled "light meat" is most likely skipjack
, classified biologically as a cousin of true tunas.
makes up about 70 percent of the canned or pouched tuna.
plentiful, so sustainability isn't an issue.
And it's cheap.
It's also a small, fast-maturing fish that's relatively low on the food chain, so the level of mercury in its flesh is low.
The downside to canned skipjack is that the texture is often mushy, and the taste can be aggressively fishy.
has a mild taste and produces firm chunks of meat.
It's labeled "white
meat," and accounts for about 30 percent of the canned-tuna market.
Many albacore are now caught by longlining, so sustainability and mercury content may be issues.
At a Restaurant
With a firm texture and mild flavor, yellowfin
tuna often appears on restaurant menus. It may be called "ahi," a Hawaiian word for tuna.
The term "ahi" is also used for bigeye
, which may occasionally land on a menu when available.
More about them below.
number of yellowfin populations are overfished now, so only pole-caught
fish are considered a good choice for sustainability.
Mercury is a
concern for those caught by longline.
At the Sushi Bar
The menu may not give much of a clue about the kind of tuna that's being served.
It may just say maguro
"The restaurant may be posting a standard menu and then
serving whatever tuna they're able to get that day," says Craig.
U.S. that's often high-grade
Other words on the menu refer to the part of the fish the meat comes from.
cut called "toro" was traditionally taken from the buttery soft belly
of the bluefin tuna.
More specifically, otoro comes from the belly close
to the head, while chutoro comes from the middle or back of the belly
and is less fatty than otoro.
Click here to see a sushi diagram of the whole fish.
is so rare these days that its price has soared.
A single bite-size
piece of otoro could now set you back $25. So if your local sushi
hangout offers two pieces of toro sushi for $10, that's not bluefin.
may be bigeye, which is generally a better option in terms of
It reproduces and matures quickly, and though some of
its populations are declining, they're not as devastated worldwide as
But bigeye tuna has a downside: Each fish can grow to
more than 400 pounds (181 kilograms), so mercury can be a concern,
depending on where and how they're caught.
Pole-caught bigeye tend to be
younger, so the mercury level is likely to be lower.
if you've studied the tuna guides before you go out to eat, how do you
know what's being prepared in the kitchen? Ask.
The servers may know
about the kind of tuna or its place of origin; if not, they can check
with the chef.
If the answer sounds fishy, maybe you should go for
chicken instead of the chicken of the seas.