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Is Our Minimal-Mercury Tuna Sustainably Harvested?
6/30/2008
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Small Albacore are exceptionally pure, for sure. But is selecting these young Tuna a sustainable practice?

by Craig Weatherby and Randy Hartnell


To ensure that we are selling the purest possible Tuna, we select young Albacore that weigh up to 12 lbs.


As a result, the average level of mercury in our Albacore (0.08 parts per million) is lower than in standard canned “light” Tuna (0.12 ppm), and four times lower than the average level in standard fresh or canned Albacore (0.34 ppm).


Mercury accumulates upward in the ocean food chain, so the highest concentrations occur in the oldest, largest members of long-lived predatory species like Swordfish and Tuna.


Recent research indicates that benefits of the omega-3s in oily fish like Tuna outweigh any risks from mercury, even when it comes to mothers and children (See “More-Fish-for-Moms Report Affirmed in Europe,” “Mercury-Fighting Mineral in Fish Overlooked in Heated Debate,” and “Fight Over Mercury Risks Muddied by Bad Science”).


Nonetheless, we err on the side of caution by selecting the purest seafood possible:

  • Our wild Alaskan Salmon, Portuguese Sardines, and Alaskan Sablefish (Black Cod) are naturally low in mercury.
  • Our wild Pacific Spot Prawns, Alaskan King Crab, and Alaskan Weathervane Scallops are naturally low in mercury.
  • We select only young, small North Pacific Albacore Tuna and Alaskan Halibut, which contain much less mercury than older, larger members of these species.

Competent government or independent bodies certify that each of these species is sustainably harvested.


However, our Tuna-purchasing policy raised a concern in one customer’s mind, and we’d like to share her question and our response, which also addresses our similar “smaller fish only” policy on Alaskan Halibut purchasing.


Here’s the question we received from LeAnn, followed by our answer from Vital Choice founder and former Alaska fisherman Randy Hartnell:


LeAnn's Tuna-sustainability query


“I am a customer who often purchases the wild red canned salmon, and I love it! I am thinking of purchasing the troll caught albacore Tuna because of the sustainable fishing methods and lower mercury content.


“However as a fisheries management specialist I have to ask a few questions about removing lower weight albacore Tuna from the population.


“If you are removing albacore that are 12 pounds or less, are the juveniles being removed from the population without having a chance to reach spawning size/age?


“I completely understand your desire to offer lower mercury fish options but sustainability of the population should not be overlooked.”


Randy’s reply


Hi LeAnn,


Thanks for contacting us and for your kind words about our Wild Red.


I understand your concern.


The answer is that our Tuna fisherman, Paul Hill, does not specifically target the smaller fish. Rather they comprise a certain percentage of every delivery he makes, and we specify that these are the only ones we're willing to buy.


He tells me that the smallest Tuna they catch and keep is 7 lbs, with the largest around 30 lbs, and a few reach 60 lbs. He says they will occasionally find themselves in schools of very small (under 7 lb) fish and will travel to avoid them.


When I first met Paul and told him we only wanted to purchase his smaller fish he was nothing less than astonished.


He said, “As long as I’ve been fishing, including as a boy on my father’s boat, the buyers have always sought the largest Tuna, and treated the smaller ones as trash.”


These buyers had no awareness or concern for contaminant levels and most still don't. In fact, nearly all large scale commercial processors still prefer the larger fish as they yield more meat per fish and are therefore more cost effective to process.


All of Paul's Tuna are troll-caught, which is an extremely targeted fishing method that results in minimal by-catch. For more about Paul and the troll method of fishing, see “Vital Choice Tuna: Safer and Tastier.


In contrast, standard commercial Tuna fishing has major negative impacts on Tuna and other species. For more on this, see “Tuna Harvest Yields ‘Collateral Damage.’


According to the Blue Ocean Institute, “Pole and troll [Albacore] fisheries have very low bycatch of non-targeted species and are models for selective fisheries. Discarded fish, including undersized individuals, are usually in a viable condition (Western Pacific Fishery Management Council 2002).”


In addition, (also from Blue Ocean) Albacore “…has a strategy for sexual development that makes it especially resilient to fishing pressure (e.g., age at 50% maturity <1 year; extremely high fecundity). Albacore Tuna are highly fecund, broadcast spawners, and females spawn millions of eggs at a time (NMFS 1999).”


(While the Blue Ocean Institute raises red flags about the Albacore fishery in certain regions, all such concerns are associated with Albacore fisheries in regions other than the North Pacific.)


As with our Albacore, we purchase only the smallest legally available Halibut, which are typically 15 lbs and under (Halibut can weigh more than 500 pounds and grow to 9 feet).


We never purchase Halibut that fall under the length minimum for commercially-landed Halibut, which is 32 inches (The average commercially harvested Pacific Halibut is about 35 inches long and weighs about 35 pounds). According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, “Pacific halibut populations are healthy. They are not overfished, and overfishing is not occurring” (NMFS Pacific Halibut 2008).


Independent lab tests show that our small, young Halibut average only 0.07 ppm mercury. For comparison sake, we tested a larger Halibut of standard commercial size, which contained a mercury level of 0.5 ppm, or seven times higher than our Halibut.


I should also note that The Marine Stewardship Councilthe leading independent auditor of fishery sustainability, founded by the World Wildlife Fundcurrently certifies that the Alaskan Halibut and North Pacific Troll Albacore Tuna fisheries meet their strict standards for sustainability (See “Tuna Fishery Awarded Sustainable Status”).


Our desire to purchase Paul’s smaller Albacorewhich the major Tuna buyers shunhas created a win-win situation. Paul now has a market for his entire catch, and our customers benefit by gaining access to the purest Tuna possible.


These smaller Albacore cost substantially more to process, but the careful handling they receive also yields superior quality fish. We find that our customers understand the value of our policy and resulting price difference.


I hope you find this information helpful and reassuring. We look forward to continuing to serve you. Please let me know if you have any additional questions.


Best regards,

Randy

Randy Hartnell, President

Vital Choice Wild Seafood & Organics



Sources

  • International Pacific Halibut Commission. Methyl mercury and heavy metal contaminant levels in Alaskan halibut. Accessed online June 28, 2008 at http://www.iphc.washington.edu/halcom/pubs/rara/2003rara/2k308RARA.pdf
  • International Pacific Halibut Commission. Pacific Halibut Fishery Regulations 2007. Accessed online June 28, 2008 at http://www.iphc.washington.edu/HALCOM/pubs/regs/2007iphcregs.pdf
  • National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Pacific Albacore Tuna (Thunnus alalunga). Accessed online June 28, 2008 at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/fishwatch/species/pac_albacore.htm
  • National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Pacific Halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) Accessed online June 28, 2008 at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/fishwatch/species/pacific_halibut.htm
  • National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Sablefish (Black Cod) (Anoplopoma fimbria). Accessed online June 28, 2008 at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/fishwatch/species/sablefish.htm

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