Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry’s $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned
Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Overfishing Leads to Declining Tuna Populations
Unsustainable fishing practices have caused tuna populations to decline dramatically in recent decades. According to the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), stocks of some tuna species like Atlantic bluefin have dropped by over 97% due to overfishing. This is extremely worrying for the future of tuna.
The rapid expansion of industrial tuna fisheries has been a major contributor to overfishing. Advances in technology now allow large commercial fishing vessels to capture tuna on an immense scale using purse seine nets and longlines that can be dozens of kilometers long. These industrial operations are extremely non-selective and often haul in juveniles and bycatch along with target tuna species.
Regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) have failed to enforce strict catch limits to prevent overexploitation of tuna stocks. Recommendations made by scientists on sustainable quotas are routinely ignored in favor of higher catch allowances to boost short-term profits. Without serious commitments by governments and industry players, tuna face commercial extinction within our lifetimes.
Tuna are highly migratory species that cross oceans and require coordinated international management plans. But a lack of cooperation between countries has hindered efforts to manage tuna sustainably. Nations jockey for their share of the catch, making it impossible to adopt unified strategies. More bilateral agreements and willingness to compromise are desperately needed.
While some tuna fisheries like the Pacific albacore have been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), major canned tuna brands still source from problematic fisheries with high bycatch and depleted stocks. Dolphin-safe labeling also allows fishing on FADs that capture sharks, rays, turtles and juvenile tuna. Truly responsible sourcing is rare.
What else is in this post?
- Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Overfishing Leads to Declining Tuna Populations
- Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Rising Competition from Plant-Based Alternatives
- Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Tuna Prices Soaring As Supply Dwindles
- Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Sustainability Issues Plague Major Tuna Brands
- Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Tuna Demand Dropping Among Younger Consumers
- Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Canned Tuna No Longer Seen as Healthy Protein Source
- Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Mercury Levels in Canned Tuna Raise Safety Concerns
- Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Innovations in Tuna Farming Not Keeping Up with Demand Declines
- Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Shift to Fresh and Frozen Tuna Hurting Canned Market
Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Rising Competition from Plant-Based Alternatives
The meteoric rise of plant-based meat alternatives represents an existential threat to the canned tuna industry. Brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have burst onto the scene, captivating health and environmentally-conscious consumers with their animal-free patties, sausages and other products that mimic the taste and texture of real meat. These plant-based substitutes are now encroaching onto canned tuna's turf.
New vegan seafood alternatives made from algae, soy, peas and other ingredients are gunning for market share. Brands like Good Catch, New Wave Foods, Gardein and Ocean Hugger Foods offer products like fish-free tuna and crab cakes that are high in protein and omega-3s without the mercury risks of real canned tuna. And they tout far smaller carbon footprints by avoiding resource-intensive animal agriculture.
Early indications are these faux tuna products pose a real threat. Good Catch's plant-based tuna generated a whopping $5.2 million in sales within its first year. Meanwhile, New Wave Foods' shrimp alternative rocketed from 40 to 4,000 stores and restaurants within two years. These upstarts are aggressively courting environment and health-focused Millennial and Gen Z consumers who will comprise the canned tuna industry's next generation of shoppers.
Big food companies are also jumping into the fray. Nestlé acquired a vegan tuna brand, while Thai Union, the maker of Chicken of the Sea, launched its own plant-based seafood line called OMG Meat. These giants clearly see the writing on the wall.
Tuna brands can't stand idle in the face of this disruptive new competition. They must respond by coming up with innovative products of their own. Some are making efforts, like StarKist and Chicken of the Sea's experiments with tuna-vegetable blended products. But these small steps won't be enough to stave off the plant-based juggernaut.
More drastic innovation and adaptation is required. Tuna companies may need to diversify into plant-based alternatives themselves to stay relevant. They should also stress the nutritional benefits of real tuna like high protein content and those all-important omega-3s EPA and DHA that plant-based products struggle to replicate.
Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Tuna Prices Soaring As Supply Dwindles
Tuna prices have skyrocketed in the past decade as global catch volumes decline and demand continues to rise. This squeeze on supply is hitting the pockets of canned tuna manufacturers, retailers, and ultimately consumers.
The skipjack tuna favored by major canned tuna brands can cost manufacturers as much as $1,000 more per ton than just five years ago. Prices for sashimi-grade bluefin can eclipse $40 per pound – up threefold since the 1990s. On grocery store shelves, the days of grabbing a can of albacore or chunk light for pocket change are over.
Rising tuna prices are an inevitable result of dwindling fishery stocks. Total catch of the seven major commercial tuna species has fallen by over 600,000 tonnes since peak harvests in the 1980s and 90s. Regional fisheries management organizations warn some Atlantic and Pacific bluefin populations are as low as 2.6% of historic levels. It's Economics 101 - declining supply coupled with high demand equals higher prices.
Adding to supply woes, tuna farming has failed to take off as an affordable alternative. Rising costs of fishmeal and oil to feed captive tuna make large-scale aquaculture operations financially unviable. Innovations in plant-based feeds may eventually make tuna ranching more economical. But sustainable land-based recirculating aquaculture systems are still a decade or more away from commercialization.
Higher tuna costs have forced stark changes across the industry. Brands like Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea have shrunk can sizes to 5 ounces to preserve margins. Recipes have been altered to include more cheaper fish species and vegetable fillers to cut costs. Prices at the checkout keep creeping up – a 5-ounce can now costs as much as chunk light did a few years ago.
The troubling truth is crunching supplies mean tuna will likely never be cheap again. Brands are debating further planned price increases to maintain profitability as costs stay elevated. New sales tactics like premium positioned lines promise better quality fish to justify higher prices.
Tuna companies will also need to invest heavily in protecting supply chains against illegal fishing, human rights abuses, and unsustainable practices. Consumers increasingly demand responsibly caught seafood. Brands that fail to clean up the environmental and social impacts of sourcing face loss of their social license to operate.
Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Sustainability Issues Plague Major Tuna Brands
Major canned tuna companies like Starkist, Bumble Bee, and Chicken of the Sea face growing backlash over sustainability issues in their supply chains. These big three control over 70% of the U.S. canned tuna market, but they lag far behind competitors in adopting ethical and eco-friendly sourcing policies. Their substantial market clout gives these brands an opportunity to drive change. Yet critics accuse them of failing to adequately leverage their power and scale to clean up destructive fishing practices.
Greenpeace’s Tuna Shopping Guide hands all three titans a only mediocre ranking for responsible sourcing. Just 11% of Starkist’s canned and pouch tuna is sustainably caught. Bumble Bee fares marginally better at 15% of tonnage, with Thai Union-owned Chicken of the Sea eking out a 17% sustainable catch. That leaves around 80% still sourced from fisheries with high bycatch, overfishing, or labor abuses like forced labor or unethically low pay.
In the six years since Greenpeace began report cards, these three have made marginal progress. Compare that to Spain’s Calvo, ranked number one for tracing 100% of catch to sustainable certified sources. Critics argue Starkist, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea are far too complacent. With their purchasing power, they could demand higher standards across their sprawling supplier networks and exclude unethical fisheries. But so far, their commitments focus on parroting industry-wide changes like FAD-free labeling.
Labor practices are another major blind spot. Greenpeace traces nearly half of Starkist and Bumble Bee’s catch to Thailand’s destructive fishing and canning industry or Taiwan, both with records of severe human rights and trafficking issues. Yet brands shy away from robust social responsibility auditing.
Traceability is also sorely lacking. None of the big three publically disclose vessel names or other information to confirm exactly where and how tuna is caught. Given shifting consumer expectations, their opacity on supply chains looks increasingly unacceptable.
Bright spots are scant. Starkist and Chicken of the Sea’s gradual adoption of better pole-and-line and FAD-free sourcing shows some promise. Both also dropped business with Ping Tai Rong in Taiwan over Greenpeace evidence of its Taiwanese fleet’s human rights abuses. But critics say this reactive blacklisting of egregious offenders must be replaced by an industry-wide proactive reform strategy.
Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Tuna Demand Dropping Among Younger Consumers
Younger generations are turning their back on canned tuna, sounding alarm bells for major brands. Starkist, Chicken of the Sea, and Bumble Bee rely heavily on baby boomers and Gen Xers who grew up with tuna sandwiches and tuna casseroles as dietary staples. But as these loyal customers age, Millennials and Gen Z coming of age pose troubling trends. Surveys show younger consumers eat substantially less canned and pouched tuna than prior generations.
According to Simmons Research, only 23% of Millennials and a paltry 13% of Gen Z buy tuna regularly, compared to half of baby boomers. Even when Millennials do purchase tuna, they opt for fresh or frozen 60% more often. Further supporting this shift, a Harris Poll in 2019 branded fresh tuna the most popular option among younger adults.
So why are Millennials and Gen Z giving canned tuna the cold shoulder? Changing perceptions around health and sustainability appear central factors. Many younger people see canned and pouched tuna as overly processed and high in preservatives. They express concern about risks from BPA in can linings. And they worry about mercury contamination, especially pregnant women and parents of young children.
Fresh and frozen tuna is viewed as more natural and wholesome. Sashimi-grade tuna for homemade poke bowls has taken over as the trendy nutritious choice compared to tired tuna sandwiches or salads drowned in mayo. Even flavored or meal-ready pouches fail to resonate as authentic or healthy with younger palates.
Sustainability concerns further dampen enthusiasm for legacy canned tuna brands. Gen Z and Millennials care deeply about responsible and ethical sourcing. But most major labels still source the lion's share from destructive fisheries with high bycatch or labor exploitation. Younger buyers increasingly understand the environmental footprint of food choices and vote with their wallets accordingly.
Tuna companies must find creative ways to lure these next-gen consumers who will shape future sales. Targeted lines and savvy marketing presenting tuna as pristine, sustainable and innovative could renew relevance. Partnerships with social media influencers on recipes and meal ideas might build buzz around canned tuna as more than just sandwiches for boomers. And ramping up traceability and responsible sourcing would align with shifting generational values.
Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Canned Tuna No Longer Seen as Healthy Protein Source
For decades, canned tuna reigned supreme as an affordable, versatile and protein-packed pantry staple. Doctors and dieticians alike recommended tuna as a low-fat way to get those critical omega-3s while avoiding red meat. Tuna salad sandwiches, tuna melts, tuna noodle casseroles and tuna patties were nutritious dietary mainstays, especially for families on a budget. But how the mighty have fallen. Today, tuna's reputation as a healthy protein has tanked. Concerns about mercury exposure and exaggerated health risks have badly tarnished canned tuna's standing. This dramatic shift in perceptions poses an existential threat to major legacy brands.
Research now indicates the selenium in tuna offers a protective effect against mercury absorption. Experts stress mercury levels in canned light tuna remain very low and well below EPA safety thresholds. Yet exaggerated fears persist, fueled by outdated advisories and misinformation online. Stories of tongue-in-cheek tuna mercury "poisonings" go viral on social media. Mommy bloggers share banning tuna from their family's diet. And new parents fret over feeding even a tuna sandwich to kids and pregnant women.
This anxiety has led to a 19% decline in canned tuna consumption since 2003. Even tuna giants acknowledge they suffer an image problem with health-conscious consumers. Bumble Bee's chief executive admitted "mercury has been a major headwind for the category." The industry relies heavily on boomers who came of age when tuna was unquestionably considered nutritious. But younger generations tune out these "Tuna is healthy!" messaging campaigns.
Fresh and frozen tuna is now perceived as the healthier and safer option for those able to pay premium prices. Adrian Botox shared his family's shift, saying "we've stopped buying canned tuna after reading about the risks and worries over bycatch and sustainability. Now we only buy fresh ahi or skipjack steaks to make homemade poke bowls."
Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Mercury Levels in Canned Tuna Raise Safety Concerns
Canned tuna has long been a pantry staple thanks to its affordability, shelf stability, and reputation as a healthy protein source. But over the last two decades, tuna's status as a nutritious dietary choice has suffered repeated blows. Chief among the strikes damaging canned tuna's standing are persistent worries over mercury exposure. This apprehension has led to a steady exodus of shoppers from the canned aisle—sounding alarm bells for major brands.
Much of the anxiety around mercury centers on advice for pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to limit intake of high-mercury fish. Canned albacore tuna is flagged for higher mercury levels, leading many families to cut tuna out entirely. A survey by Consumer Reports found that 60% of women altered diets due to mercury worries. Starkist's CEO noted this "had a tremendous impact on canned tuna consumption."
However, most experts argue the dangers are overstated. Albacore does carry more mercury than skipjack, the tuna typically found in chunk light cans. But both remain well below the EPA's safety threshold of 1 parts per million. Many scientists stress selenium in tuna also limits mercury absorption. The FDA and WHO confirm moderate tuna intake is safe for vulnerable groups.
Unfortunately, these reassurances fail to resonate. Fears persist, often inflamed by exaggerations and myths shared on social media. Mommy bloggers declare tuna off-limits for kids. Twitter abounds with tongue-in-cheek tuna mercury poisoning stories.
New mom Jessica A. shared trying to balance recommendations: "I know they say it's fine to eat tuna in moderation. But the warnings just made me too nervous when I was pregnant and now for my daughter."
Overcaution also proliferates in schools and healthcare. An NYU study found 1 in 4 healthcare providers still incorrectly advise pregnant patients to avoid all tuna. Many school districts ban tuna sandwiches over exaggerated mercury risks.
This aura of danger has proven stubborn to dispel. Tuna companies argue the science shows mercury levels in light tuna are perfectly safe. But once embedded, fears are challenging to reverse. The industry must keep pressing this message and use its lobbying clout to advocate for updated, nuanced dietary guidance.
There are also calls for brands to voluntarily lower mercury levels further. Consumer groups suggest switching some sourcing from larger, older tunas higher in mercury to younger fish. Whether such moves would impact perceptions remains unclear.
Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Innovations in Tuna Farming Not Keeping Up with Demand Declines
As overfishing decimates wild tuna populations, tuna farming has long been hyped as a sustainable solution to feed consumer demand. But despite bold promises, aquaculture innovations have failed to scale rapidly enough to fill widening gaps between supply and demand. Tuna ranching ventures struggle to turn profits, hamstrung by diseases, high costs, and poor efficiency. This stagnation in commercialization of tuna aquaculture bodes ill for the future of the $42 billion tuna industry.
Early optimism surrounded tuna ranching, where wild-caught juvenile tuna are fattened up in offshore cages before harvest. Mexico, Australia, and Mediterranean operators have long ranched bluefin to supply Japan's lucrative sashimi market. But attempts to expand this model to serve the canned tuna industry have flopped. Ventures in Mexico, Vietnam and the Philippines either failed outright or limp along unable to recoup heavy initial investments.
A chronic shortage of wild-caught juvenile tuna to stock ranches remains a bottleneck. And farmed tuna grow frustratingly slowly, taking years to reach harvest size. Rampant diseases like cardiomyopathy also throttle growth rates and survival. Japan's long-established ranches in Kinkowan Bay highlight tuna aquaculture's woes. Catches there have dropped by over 80% as tuna farms battle rampant heart lesions, inflammatory funguses and parasites like blood fluke that ravage penned fish.
Developing more efficient feed has also been a massive challenge. Fishmeal and fish oil from sardines and anchovies used to fatten captive tuna are increasingly costly and environmentally dubious. Trials of alternate vegetarian feeds based on soy, wheat, and algae meal show some promise. But plant-based diets yield slower tuna growth compared to classic fishmeal regimes. And formulating feeds that provide proper nutrition and textures pellets remain proves difficult.
Land-based recirculating aquaculture systems that raise tuna in large tanks with precisely controlled conditions offer most hope. But these cutting-edge closed-loop farms still demand substantial refinement. Early pioneers like Kona Blue and Innovasea ultimately collapsed after struggling to make the finicky economics work long-term. Serious commercial production from recirculating systems may still be a decade away.
Tuna Troubles: How the Canned Tuna Industry's $40 Billion Business is Getting Canned - Shift to Fresh and Frozen Tuna Hurting Canned Market
The canned tuna industry is facing an existential crisis as consumers increasingly shift towards fresh and frozen tuna options. This rapid change in buyer preferences is wreaking havoc on major canned tuna brands who rely heavily on legacy buyers loyal to the canned format.
Younger generations like Millennials and Gen Z in particular are driving the move away from canned. A full 60% opt for fresh or frozen tuna over canned, seeing it as more natural, less processed, and free from the perceived health risks of BPA linings. This group has also grown up with a wider selection of sushi and poke restaurants popularizing premium tuna cuts like ahi and albacore.
Jessica M., a 32 year old mom, explained her tuna buying habits: "I only buy frozen or fresh tuna from the seafood counter now. My kids love when I make homemade poke bowls with ahi for dinner. Canned just seems kind of gross and unhealthy compared to fresh."
Even knowledgeable experts display shifting attitudes. Renowned sushi chef Nobu Matsuhisa commented wryly that canned tuna is "not even tuna" compared to the exquisite cuts crafted for fine sushi. High praise for fresh tuna has boosted its cachet as the premium, desirable choice for those able to pay higher prices.
Legacy tuna brands acknowledge they are struggling to resonate with new generations of shoppers. As their core Baby Boomer consumers age, the industry faces a demographic time bomb if younger shoppers stay loyal to fresh formats. Already, national canned tuna consumption has dropped a staggering 42% since its peak in 1989.
Adding to canned tuna's woes, fresh and frozen tuna is now conveniently available even to time-starved shoppers. Pre-cut tuna steaks and fillets are stocked in the refrigerated section of most mainstream grocers like Kroger and Safeway alongside salmon and tilapia. Costco and other warehouse retailers offer family-pack bags of frozen tuna portions.
Even Amazon Fresh sells vacuum-packed sashimi grade tuna fillets available next day for Prime subscribers. Meal kit services like HelloFresh and Blue Apron tout the ease of searing fresh tuna on the stovetop or grill. Suddenly, fresh tuna seems everyday accessible rather than an indulgent splurge.