“Can” We Do Better?

In the complicated world of seafood, at last a clear choice

Paul Greenberg
5 min readNov 4, 2021

“Closed Canned Fish isolated above white background” by wuestenigel is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

It’s a rare occurrence that a black-and-white choice presents itself in the complicated world of ethical seafood buying. The conscientious diner striving to save depleted cod stocks might choose a farmed tilapia for his fish and chips only to learn that his tilapia may have been grown in China and high doses of antibiotics and toxic antifoulants could have been administered on the farm. A shrimp lover might eschew farmed shrimp because of the damage shrimp farming can do to mangrove forests, only to learn that shrimp caught in the wild often result in significant bycatch of unmarketable fish and sea turtles.

It is a choice made not at the fresh seafood counter but in that humdrum aisle where the cans are kept. Canned salmon or canned tuna? Which is better?

But in spite of all of this noise in the marketplace, there are actually a few very clear choices. One of them presents itself each time we step into a large supermarket. It is a choice made not at the fresh seafood counter or even in the frozen section. It is made in that humdrum aisle where the cans are kept. The choice is there before us: canned salmon or canned tuna? Which is better?

The answer is salmon, hands down, with three quick and easy explanations.

1. We know how many salmon there are and how many we can catch.

Salmon do something that makes managing them relatively easy — they return to spawn in the place where they were born. This means that fisheries managers can, year in and year out, determine how many salmon there are and how many we can take without damaging the long term viability of a given population. True, there are places like far eastern Russia where not-so-careful salmon census-taking occurs, but the majority of canned salmon comes to our supermarkets from Alaska, where careful monitoring is in place and to which the Marine Stewardship Council has issued sustainability certification.

Tuna range far and wide across the oceans. Estimates of tuna population sizes are therefore considerably less exact than those for salmon. In addition, tuna stocks are fished by…

Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org