Tuna through the Ages: 10 Facts You Need to Know

Tuna through the Ages: 10 Facts You Need to Know

Canned or fresh, grilled or raw—tuna is popular around the world today as an easily accessible, healthy protein source. Read on for a look at the history of tuna fishing, and how it grew to become an industry with an annual value of $40 billion.

1. Humans have been fishing for tuna for at least 42,000 years.

A team of archaeologists recently found evidence of fishing by an ancient civilization at a site in East Timor. The team, led by Sue O’Connor of the Australian National University in Canberra, recovered fishing hooks and 38,000 fish bones at the Southeast Asian site.

The team traced the bones to 23 different fish species, including parrotfish and tuna—pelagic species that populate deep water. Radiocarbon dating showed that some of the earliest bones dated back some 42,000 years, meaning that human beings started embarking on deep-sea fishing expeditions far earlier than experts previously thought.


2. The Japanese penchant for tuna is relatively new.

In their book, Japan’s Tuna Fishing Industry, authors Marcus Haward and Anthony Bergin reveal that, in feudal times, tuna was regarded as a very poor-quality fish. In fact, it was usually discarded.

The authors believe this is attributable to an elevated risk of food poisoning. Tuna has an elevated body temperature, meaning that the meat spoils relatively quickly. It was not until after WWII, with the development of deep-freezing technologies, that the Japanese tuna market really took off.

3. America’s tuna canning industry started in San Diego.

Fishing in this region dates back thousands of years, long before the arrival of European settlers. The Kumeyaay Indians who inhabited the area were skilled at fishing, using nets, arrows, and spears to catch 45 different fish species and 60 different types of shellfish.

In the 1800s, the area we now know as San Diego was gradually settled by the Chinese, followed by a wave of Europeans. Among them were Italians with maritime experience. Within a short span of time, San Diego had developed an impressive fishing fleet.

The first fish cannery in San Diego was a sardine cannery that opened in 1909. During a dip in sardine stocks, Albert Halfhill tried canning albacore tuna, marketing it as “chicken of the sea.”

4. Canned tuna was unpopular when it was first released in the US.

Halfhill first pitched his canned albacore to the Los Angeles market, but he failed to find any interest. He turned his attentions to New York, where his product found “instantaneous demand.”

San Diego’s tuna fishing industry grew to employ more than 40,000 people in catching, canning, and marketing tuna, soon becoming the county’s third-largest employer, after the Navy and the aerospace industry.

tuna shelves

5. Bluefin tuna is the most expensive fish in the world.

In January 2019, Japanese sushi tycoon Kiyoshi Kimura paid $3.1 million for a 612-lb. kilo bluefin.

6. There are 15 recognized tuna species.

Of these, the tuna fishing industry centers around just five:

  1. Albacore—a cooler water species that is sometimes found off the west and east coasts of the US. This species accounts for around 20 percent of the US canned tuna market.
  2. Skipjack—a relatively small, abundant tuna species that is widely fished. Approximately 70 percent of US canned tuna is skipjack.
  3. Yellowfin—a widespread fish with distinctive yellow fins.
  4. Bigeye—a large tuna species that can reach up to 2 meters long; in danger due to overfishing.
  5. Bluefin—there are three subspecies of bluefin tuna: Atlantic, Pacific, and southern. They grow up to 3 meters in length and can weigh around 1,000 pounds.

7. Bluefin tuna are critically endangered in some areas.

Today, the Pacific bluefin tuna is designated “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The Atlantic bluefin tuna is listed as “endangered,” while southern bluefin tuna is “critically endangered.”

8. Overfishing has caused Pacific bluefin populations to drop by 96 percent.

Without human interference, bluefin tuna reside at the top of the fish food chain. Largely thanks to their size, they have few predators in the wild.

But because bluefin tuna is considered a delicacy by sushi devotees, the species has been fished to the brink of extinction. Experts warn that, if current trends continue, bluefin tuna will soon become functionally extinct in Pacific regions.


9. Some tuna species are sustainable.

Skipjack has the fastest reproduction rate of any tuna species. It also has the largest stocks.

10. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) promotes sustainable tuna fishing.

Collaborating with scientists, conservationists, policymakers, and fishing industry experts, the MSC offers a Fisheries Standard certification program that sets standards for tuna fishing.

Its voluntary blue label initiative promotes traceability, enabling members of the public to trace fish from the boat to the shelf. The initiative ensures that the customer gets exactly what it says on the label, as well as ensuring that fish is sustainably sourced.

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