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How the Tuna Capital of the World Is Weathering America's Breakup With Tuna

Americans’ long, slow break-up with tuna has certainly been felt by two big brands headquartered in San Diego. But one thriving local upstart brand is proving there are plenty of consumers willing to pay more for a product that comes with a transparent supply chain.

America has fallen out of love with tuna.

Clare Leschin-Hoar LogoWe’ve moved past our romance with cheesy tuna melts and tuna casseroles topped with smashed potato chips. American palates now lean toward fresh and more sophisticated ingredients. So long, tuna-stuffed avocados. Hello, lightly seared ahi salad dressed in a tangy Asian-inspired ginger vinaigrette. That’s the gist of a recent Washington Post piece about the decline of canned tuna sales, which have reached their lowest level in 15 years.

The long, slow break-up has certainly been felt by two big tuna brands headquartered in San Diego — once known as the “tuna capital of the world” — Chicken of the Sea, with 2013 sales of $1.12 billion, and Bumble Bee Foods, with 2013 sales of $1 billion, according to SeaFood Business magazine, which ranked the companies second and third, respectively, in its list of North America’s top 25 seafood suppliers.

Image courtesy of Bumble Bee
Image courtesy of Bumble Bee

What caused the rift between eaters and canned tuna? The Post points to a host of problems that tuna can’t seem to shake: ongoing concerns over safe levels of methylmercury found in some tuna; lingering issues of bycatch (when species other than what’s being targeted by the fishery — in this case, tuna — are also caught and discarded) including dolphins and sharks; rising prices and the simple fact that eating from a can isn’t as common as it used to be.

Bumble Bee Foods CEO Chris Lischewski told me in May that BumbleBee is aware of the trend, and he added another explanation of his own:

“People are looking for convenience. At the end of the day, canned tuna is an ingredient. Most people don’t eat it out of the can. It’s not as convenient as deli meat you can buy and slap on some bread. Consumers have to open the lid, drain it, put in a bowl and mix it with mayonnaise. And more recently, we’re losing market to Greek yogurt, after all, it’s a protein.”

In December, Bumble Bee entered the frozen tuna business. Company factories that historically processed albacore now focus on yellowfin and big eye tunas headed for the frozen market.

“My favorite discussion with retail folks is: How old is your fresh tuna? Where’s it from? If it’s from Bangladesh, that’s pretty far away to be fresh, so that fresh tuna steak is 17-22 days old,” Lischewski said. “We think there’s a big opportunity to bring frozen to the retail market.”

While Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea are iconic tuna brands (both have long been foreign-owned despite their San Diego addresses), they’re not the only canned tuna business in town.

American Tuna, launched in 2005 by six San Diego-based fishing families, sells fully traceable, Marine Stewardship Council-certified, pole-caught tuna (that means they catch the tuna one at a time). At more than $5 for a 6 ounce can, it can make for a pricey tuna sandwich, but unlike name-brand tunas, which are experiencing a decline, sales are booming for this small local business.

“People want to know where their fish comes from. There is no other tuna fishery left that is U.S. flagged and harvested in U.S. waters. This is it,” said Natalie Webster, American Tuna’s director of sales and marketing.

“The consumer is choosing a quality product. They don’t want mush in a can. The degradation of the quality of canned tuna led to the decrease of people buying those other brands. We have more than 20 percent growth every year. Our brand is not inexpensive, but you get what you pay for: albacore tuna, raw-packed, and caught by American fishermen.”

Business has been so good that earlier this year the company brokered an exclusive deal with natural foods retailer Whole Foods to create their Pole & Line brand canned tuna, and companion product, Deck Hand premium cat food, made from the tuna red meat.

Image courtesy of Whole Foods
Image courtesy of Whole Foods

While the albacore still comes from U.S. waters, the skipjack (the smallest and most abundant tuna specues) used in the product comes from an MSC-certified fishery in the Maldives. Both are processed in Thailand, giving this canned tuna option a lower price point for consumers, and ensures that 100 percent of the fish is being utilized.

So while it’s true Americans are eating less canned tuna , what’s notable is that there are plenty of consumers willing to pay more for a product that comes with a transparent supply chain, and one that supports our region’s remaining fishermen.

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