Few pantry staples are more commonplace than “chunk light tuna.” Often less than a dollar for a 5-ounce can, it’s the cheapest tuna you’ll find in a grocery. Yet its journey to the canned-fish aisle winds backward through thousands of miles of highways, distribution centers, container ships, fish-processing plants, freighter ships, docks and fishing boats to massive schools of the most widely sought species—skipjack tuna, which migrate through the western and central Pacific Ocean.
There, 280-odd vessels—some of which stretch nearly as long as a football field and send out helicopters to spot schools of fish—use massive nets to catch tuna. Each year, the net-fishing fleet here accounts for most of the nearly 3 million metric tons of fish—a catch worth almost $7 billion.
“About two-thirds of the global tuna catch is harvested in the waters of this region,” says Mark Zimring, The Nature Conservancy’s large-scale fisheries director. “When you overlay that onto the region, which is a hot spot of global biodiversity, it’s causing all sorts of ecosystem impacts in this really critical stronghold for nature.”
The tuna vessels catch entire schools of fish with purse seine nets that can be hundreds of yards long and can unintentionally ensnare sharks, sea turtles and other marine life. In addition, illegal and underreported fishing has proliferated beyond the reach of the Pacific Island governments that manage the local fisheries. Now, however, shoppers in the United States have the chance to support fishing techniques that have a lighter impact not just on tuna populations but also on other fish and wildlife that are often swept up in the catch.
In 2021, a company called Pacific Island Tuna was launched to supply sustainably harvested skipjack to large grocery chains. The company, which is an independent tuna supplier, was created as a partnership between The Nature Conservancy and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a hub of the Pacific fishing fleet. The joint venture is applying fishing practices honed over years of research and is already putting sustainable tuna on the shelves at Walmart, a leading seller of tuna in the U.S. The effort is demonstrating how the canned tuna industry can work in more transparent and sustainable ways, while also helping the government of the Marshall Islands make more money from its marine resources—money that the country is now using to provide essential services to its citizens and to prepare for the effects of climate change.
In April 2022, after three weeks at sea, a 236-foot fishing boat called the Pacific Pursuit No. 777 pulled alongside a commercial dock in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. There, cargo cranes pulled thousands of skipjack out of the boat’s holds, icy wisps of condensation unfurling like spindrift from the blast frozen fish.
This was the first load delivered to Pacific Island Tuna in the Marshall Islands. The company—launched the previous year with a $5 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation—is based on Majuro atoll. A nation of roughly 60,000 people, the Marshall Islands sprawl across nearly three dozen atolls and islands over some 750,000 square miles of the central Pacific—a hub of the tuna trade. Created to make that fishery more sustainable, Pacific Island Tuna buys fish only from vessels that commit to a rigorous code of conduct designed to ensure that fish are sustainably caught.
“Before, it was all about catching fish quickly—and all about quantity,” says Gene Muller, Pacific Island Tuna’s general manager. “Now there’s a lot more to think about.”
The owners and crew of the vessels that supply fish for Pacific Island Tuna agree to comprehensive onboard monitoring. This involves a combination of in-person monitors staffed on each boat and electronic monitors (or onboard cameras) to ensure both that non-tuna “bycatch” such as turtles and sharks is returned to the sea, and that crew members have safe and fair working conditions. In exchange, the fishing companies get access to stable long-term procurement for future catches to be bought by Pacific Island Tuna.
They also commit to using “free school” fishing techniques rather than deploying fish aggregating devices, or FADs. These devices are floating rafts or buoys that attract baitfish, which lure tuna and allow fishing boats to more easily scoop them up. But these devices have had a big impact on the ocean’s food web: They attract endangered fish and other marine life, which contributes to bycatch, along with juvenile tuna, which are then caught before they have a chance to reproduce. Aggregating devices lost at sea can entangle coral reefs, and many have washed ashore on atolls across the Pacific. It was estimated that in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, as many as 65,000 FADs were deployed in the western and central Pacific.
Pacific Island Tuna also means to tackle another chronic problem in the central and western Pacific: a longstanding inability by nations’ fishery managers to determine just how much fish is actually being caught. A 2020 analysis commissioned by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries agency estimates that “illegal, unreported and unregulated” fishing takes more than $333 million worth of tuna from the Pacific Islands region every year.
Much of that disappears from the region through a process called transshipment at sea, in which fishing boats offload their catch directly to freighters, which then steam off to distant ports elsewhere in Asia. That makes it challenging for local fishery managers to verify exactly how many fish—and what type—are being caught. But vessels that supply fish to Pacific Island Tuna unload their catch at the docks on Majuro itself, thereby allowing for the catch to be verified and recorded, and giving fishery managers better information with which to manage the fishery and reduce impacts to tuna and other species.
The effort helps integrate a number of different sustainable- fisheries approaches that TNC has been developing with Pacific Island governments over roughly the past decade, including electronic monitoring and large-scale data analysis
“We’re moving from this wild-wild-west era of fishing to having an amazing suite of tools that enables us to really much better understand—both from a science and a management perspective—what’s happening on the water,” TNC’s Zimring says.
Quote: Mark Zimring
But what’s happening on grocery store shelves is just as important. Once Pacific Island Tuna’s frozen skipjack is offloaded from a fishing vessel, it is loaded into refrigerated shipping containers and sent to a fish-processing plant in the Philippines. There, it’s processed, canned and delivered to the retailer. The first cans appeared on Walmart shelves in September 2022, under the company’s Great Value label and represent a portion of their total supply.
“The reason we’re so excited about Pacific Island Tuna is because it’s a very visible way of showing how if you put in the work and you connect the dots, you can start to get it right,” says Aman Singh, Walmart’s director of global communications for sustainability. “That’s why there’s so much appetite for getting this right and then replicating it.”
The effort is driven, in large part, by a desire to show how sustainability can happen at a scale far bigger than farmers markets and community-supported agriculture programs. “It’s not a boutique story and product; the goal is to mainstream this stuff,” Zimring says. “We’re seeing retailers investing in and developing their own brands, and we see them as a key lever in driving this kind of market change.”
Partnerships like this can help build consumers’ confidence that they’re making choices that are good for the planet, says Zimring. “The reality is that consumers ar
overwhelmed. When I show up at Walmart or Whole Foods or Albertsons or wherever it is, I don’t want to have to ask myself questions about the legality of every single seafood product on their shelves. I want to trust that that retailer is putting things on the shelves that align with my core values.”
Singh agrees. “The core Walmart customer is not going to scan a lot of QR codes” to learn the story behind a can of tuna, she says. The key is helping customers understand that even an inexpensive can of tuna is part of a much bigger transformation in the food aisles.
“Can I just trust this tuna can and know that it was sourced sustainably?” Singh says. “And how is this one piece that’s coming together now catalyzing a hundred more improvements?”
Sustainable tuna is part of a much broader effort by Walmart to source 20 types of commodities more sustainably by 2025. That includes many of the foods and ingredients the company sells most: rice, wheat, beef and corn. Environmental and social sustainability, Singh says, “is not a niche thing anymore.”
In addition to showing the world a better way to fish, Pacific Island Tuna is also helping the Marshall Islands government capture a greater share of the revenues generated as tuna moves up the supply chain. Pacific Island nations have been working to capture a bigger piece of revenues through fishing licenses and access fees. “These countries are getting anywhere from 5% to well over 50% of their national incomes from the tuna fishery,” Zimring says. “The sustainability of these fisheries is really critical to both their food and economic security.”
Until now, though, they haven’t been active participants in the “downstream” value chain of tuna as it makes it way to supercenter shelves. “For a long while now, we have been licensing others to come and fish in our waters and take that fish away. And the only value we see is the license fee,” says John Silk, the minister of resources and development for the Republic of the Marshall Islands. “With Pacific Island Tuna, we can really get more from our tuna—not just selling our licenses, but getting the real value of our tuna, all the way through the supply chain.”
In Pacific Island Tuna’s initial stage, 60% of net income will go back to TNC to repay some of the initial grant. Once the grant is repaid, that portion of net income will go to the Marshall Islands and any other participating governments to help provide basic services, such as education and health care. The remaining 40%, known as a “sustainability distribution,” is already going to local communities to support conservation and climate-resilience activities, including outreach to schoolchildren about the importance of protecting marine resources; invasive species removal; coral reef restoration; and the creation of marine protected areas.
Since its launch in 2021, Pacific Island Tuna has taken delivery of 15 shipments of skipjack, totaling more than 8.8 million pounds of fish. That’s still only a small splash in a very big ocean: just a little over one-tenth of 1% of the estimated 2021 tuna catch in the western and central Pacific Ocean. But the company is working to ramp up production for U.S. retailers, and to add larger cans, pouches and other tuna species, including albacore and yellowfin, to its offerings. Meanwhile, TNC is working to bring this new approach to other food commodity supply chains, including shrimp and beef.
“We’re trying to change a way of doing business that’s been decades in the making,” says Pacific Island Tuna’s Muller. He says that Pacific Island Tuna is proving that sustainability and profitability don’t need to be at odds. “This is something new, and something that we need to explain to a lot of people and convince them that this is the way of the future. … We can shape a different, more resilient future for the tuna industry and the communities that rely on it.”