How sustainable is your canned seafood brand?


How sustainable is your canned seafood brand?

In July 2016, Tesco – a major UK retailer decided to remove 20% of John West tuna from its shelves due to sustainability concerns.

This piqued my interest because John West as a brand takes a strong stand on sustainable fishing. So how did this incident happen and what can we as consumers learn from it?

John West branded canned tuna is manufactured by John West Foods – a UK-based seafood marketing company. The company has a Sustainability Promise and John West Europe says it does not source tuna from fishing vessels where catches have been carried out using destructive fishing methods such as Longline Fishing or Drift-net Fishing.



Both Long-line Fishing or Drift-net Fishing have negative impact on bycatch and cause harm to other marine species which can often get entangled or hurt in long lines and drift nets.

Here’s what Longline Fishing looks like:


Photo Courtesy: Australian Fisheries Management Authority

John West also claimed that 20% of all its tuna is caught using the Pole & Line methods – which means almost no bycatch of sharks, turtles and other larger marine animals.


Photo Courtesy: Australian Fisheries Management Authority

However, in October 2015 a Greenpeace report suggested that 98% of John West tuna was caught using Fish Aggregation Devices (FADs). FADs are floating objects that are designed and strategically placed to attract fish and in turn, can harm bycatch species.

The resulting pressure from the Greenpeace report, together with reviews of existing sustainable fishing policies, have led to not just Tesco but also other supermarkets to consider banning John West tuna from their shelves.

So what are some of the lessons that food brands can learn from this episode?

  1. Brands should carefully consider their Sustainability Promises before making them. John West’s sustainable tuna sourcing policy made in 2011 was commendable however the implementation of the policy has fallen short of expectations.
  1. Brands should engage with relevant NGOs and understand their benchmarks and measuring techniques. The 2015 Greenpeace report and John West’s own measurements show different percentages for tuna caught using the Pole & Line method
  1. Purchasing decisions of retailers such as supermarket chains have the power to influence sustainability practices of their suppliers by asking the right questions. Retailers have a huge role to play in contributing to sustainable food supply chains by taking a stand for sustainable practices and helping consumers make more informed choices

As a background to this, there are 7 species of oceanic tuna of major commercial importance: Three species of bluefin tuna and one each of albacore, bigeye, yellowfin and skipjack tuna.


Tunas species (from top): albacore, Atlantic bluefin, skipjack, yellowfin, bigeye

Popular local canned tuna brands such as those available in most Singapore supermarkets sell either Skipjack Tuna or Yellowfin Tuna. Based on the latest assessment in the Status of the World Fisheries for Tuna Report (2016), both these species have healthy spawning stocks and they are not overfished or endangered.

However according to the report less than 42% of the global catch of Yellowfin Tuna and Skipjack Tuna come from safe fishing methods. This means a majority of the fishing practices for catching these 2 types of tuna have unknown or negative impact on bycatch species. Specifically 35% of Yellowfin Tuna and 10% of Skipjack Tuna are caught using methods where impact on bycatch stocks is unknown.


While some brands of canned tuna in Southeast Asian markets have started to publish more information about their sustainability efforts on their websites, there is still a general lack of transparency and easily-accessible information for the consumer on the overall sustainability of the products – especially on the health of the tuna sources, fishing methods, bycatch impact, labour practices and what the certification labels on their tins, if any, really stand for.

Ms. Jacqui Dixon, associate consultant at shared-value based consultancy network Incite says, “Any company or brand sourcing seafood should know first and foremost where that fish originated. Policies and systems should be developed to trace all fish species to the ocean of origin and the vessel of catch. In-house expertise, combined with external support, should enable the teams doing the purchasing to understand the sustainability aspects impacting that fishery or production method.”

Certification programs such as those designed by Marine Stewardship Council are helping consumers become more aware about supply chain transparency of their favourite seafood brands. In a recent global study on behalf of MSC on attitudes towards seafood consumption, 72% of shoppers agreed that in order to save the oceans shoppers should only consume seafood from sustainable sources. More than 50% were willing to pay more for a certified sustainable seafood product.

However certification programs and labels have also come under criticism in the past for certifying fisheries despite evidence against their sustainability practices.

Despite these challenges certification programs and labels remain effective ways to enable consumers to make the right choices. WWF’s Sustainable Seafood Guide is also a wonderful resource to enable consumers to make the best seafood choices.

Ms. Dixon adds, “There are plenty of independent assessment tools, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, Seafish RASS and FishSource that companies can use to do this. These assessment tools enable purchasing teams to understand bycatch management, gearing method impacts on habitat, harvest strategy, stock status, species vulnerability, fish mortality / exploitation rate and the importance of the species in the wider ecosystem. All of these criteria should form part of a company’s sourcing policy. Companies need to know where they get their fish from and what the issues are in relation to those fisheries. Asking the right questions with your suppliers is a good start.”

How else can companies and brands take a stand for sustainable seafood production and consumption? And how can consumers get involved and trust the certifications? Share your thoughts!

Ashwin Subramaniam

Firmly believe that companies can unlock great business opportunities in tackling social and environmental challenges in their communities. Check out our story at or if you'd like to get in touch for a coffee or chat, email me at We'd love to hear your story.

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