Food

From Sea To Shelf: Journey Of The Yellowfin Tuna

by Mok Wei Tong (Yale-NUS College)

Canned tuna is one of the most ubiquitous food items, but how much do we know about its origins? By tracking the journey of the yellowfin tuna from sea to supermarket shelves, this photo essay captures its dynamic production process and our ever-changing relationship with canned tuna.

Journey of the Yellowfin Tuna
Journey of the Yellowfin Tuna

Thunnus albacares, n.d. Image credit: Brian J. Skerry/ National Geographic Stock/ WWF

Meet Thunnus albacares, or the yellowfin tuna. Found commonly in canned tuna, the yellowfin is a large torpedo-shaped fish with a dark metallic blue back, bright yellow fins and a distinctive golden stripe on its side. Not only does the yellowfin tuna provide food and a means of livelihood for people, it is also a top predator in the marine food chain, maintaining balance in the ocean environment.

Journey of the Yellowfin Tuna

Distribution of Yellowfin Tuna Fisheries, 1987. Image credit: Bartoo/ Reproduced courtesy of the US Nat. Mar. Fish. Serv.

As a highly migratory fish, the yellowfin tuna is found worldwide in tropical and subtropical waters, primarily between 350N and 300S. The younger tunas school in big groups with other tunas like skipjack and bigeye, while the larger tunas are frequently associated with dolphins.

Journey of the Yellowfin Tuna

Small outrigger boat with fisherman pulling up a newly caught yellowfin tuna by hook and line. Gorontalo, North Sulawesi, Indonesia, 2009. Image credit: Jürgen Freund/ WWF.

Here, a fisherman on a small outrigger boat is pulling up a yellowfin by pole-and-line. Before the invention of more sophisticated fishing gear, pole-and-line was one of the main ways people fished for yellowfin tuna. Caught one fish at a time, each catch is limited and labour-intensive, but embodies an intimate bond between fisherman and sea.

Journey of the Yellowfin Tuna

Yellowfin tuna shoal caught in 275 ft purse seiner fishing nets. Pacific Ocean, Mexico, n.d. Image credit: naturepl.com/Doc White/WWF.

Over the years, the use of purse seining (a large wall of netting deployed around an entire school of fish) has increased to contribute to nearly 60% of the total tuna catch of the commercial fishing industry. While purse seining is efficient in increasing tuna landings, this method can result in high levels of bycatch. Used further offshore and in deeper waters, purse seining marks a deepening divide between ecology and mankind.

Journey of the Yellowfin Tuna

By-catch of Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) in a French Tuna purse-seine fishery in the Atlantic Ocean, 1998. Image credit: Hélène Petit/WWF.

In tuna fisheries, by-catch rates of turtles and dolphins are high. Juvenile yellowfin are also caught as by-catch by vessels targeting skipjack. The removal of these juveniles from their natural environments before they have a chance to spawn could lead to fewer yellowfin in the long term.

Journey of the Yellowfin Tuna

Workers sorting tuna at the pier in Ghana’s Tema port, 2019. Image credit: Kyle LaFerriere/WWF-US.

Frozen fish spill from an open net and slap onto the concrete pier. All kinds of infrastructure and technology make canned tuna a reality – fishing gears, transportation fleets, freezing technology, and postharvest handling techniques.

Journey of the Yellowfin Tuna

A Tuna Canning Factory in Spain, n.d. Image credit: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The yellowfin tuna undergoes a rigorous process of being beheaded, cleaned and cooked before it is canned and shipped to local and export markets. With the growth of the canning industry, human labour has largely been replaced by more efficient systems of technology.

Journey of the Yellowfin Tuna

Canned Tuna Displayed on Supermarket Shelves in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2017. Image credit: AsiaDreamPhoto/ Alamy Stock Photo.

Long considered to be a staple of our diet, today canned tuna is piled up on supermarket and cupboard shelves, to be consumed only in times of emergency. The loss of appeal of canned tuna comes amidst rising concerns regarding health and affordability. This is a story of the developed world’s increasing alienation from the production and consumption of canned tuna.

Journey of the Yellowfin Tuna

Empty Shelves of Canned Tuna during the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020. Photo by author.

During the COVID-19 crisis, supermarket shelves spot relatively vacant shelves as compared to the usual stockpile full of canned tuna. Amidst decreasing popularity in the modern diet, canned tuna still manages to exert its weight in times of emergency. Our relationship with canned tuna is not a simple one; it is marked with indifference yet security, comfort yet dispensability, distance yet familiarity.

Mok Wei Tong (Yale-NUS College)

Wei Tong is a Psychology Major at Yale-NUS College who loves the familiar taste of tuna in all kinds of bread and pastry. She is interested in education and developmental work and strives to be a responsible steward of earth’s resources. 

Established in 2011, through a partnership between Yale University and the National University of Singapore, Yale-NUS College is a leading liberal arts and sciences college in Asia, with a residential programme that integrates living and learning. Drawing on the resources and traditions of its founding universities, a Yale-NUS education promotes broad-based interdisciplinary learning across the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities complemented by depth of expertise in one’s major.

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