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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 With the growth of the canning industry, human labour has largely been replaced by more efficient systems of technology.
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.
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.