Sustainable Tuna: Understanding the Labels, Terms and Organizations - Public Goods

25% off is in the bag.

Enter your email for 25% off your first order.

25% off is in the bag.

Enter your email for 25% off your first order.

Sustainable Tuna: Understanding the Labels, Terms and Organizations

The tuna industry can be horribly destructive. Irresponsible practices, such as overfishing, have decimated aquatic environments and threatened our supply of fish.

tuna sandwich

Fortunately there are many companies that are dedicated to fishing for tuna without damaging the ocean. Every can of tuna has labels and terms that indicate whether it’s sustainable. You can also look at brand websites for information on fishing practices.

The problem is all this terminology can get confusing. It’s hard to know which certifications and claims really signify sustainability.

If you are determined to buy tuna that really is sustainable, use our guide as a reference. We sorted the information between labels and phrases backed by organizations versus language that does indicate sustainability but isn’t connected to any certification. The latter is only valuable if you trust the brand to be honest.


American Pregnancy Association

According to the American Pregnancy Association, health experts often recommend that pregnant women avoid canned tuna because it may contain unhealthy levels of mercury. Brands can earn the organization’s label by proving that they test for mercury and make an effort to provide nutrients that are particularly beneficial for pregnant women and children.

Certified Paleo

This label means the Paleo Foundation has certified that the product contains Paleo ingredients (foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate) but “may have some 21st-century processing or packaging methods allowing for shelf stability.” The certification doesn’t have much value for sustainability, but it’s important for consumers who are hardcore fans of the paleo diet.


While hauling schools of tuna in massive nets, many fishing boats accidentally catch and kill dolphins. The dolphin-safe label claims no dolphins were harmed during fishing. Brands earn this label by complying with laws designed to protect dolphins.

Organizations Associated With This Label:


It’s common for fishing companies to rely on fishing aggregating devices [FADs] to efficiently catch schools of tuna. These objects artificially mimic the natural process of tuna gathering around organic material such as logs, seaweed and coconuts. This method involves nets that often result in the deaths of thousands of other sea creatures.

“FAD-free” means the fisherman did not use FADs to secure the tuna.

Organizations Associated With This Label:

Friend of the Sea

Founded by the Director of the Dolphin-Safe Project, Friend of the Sea is a division of the World Sustainability Organization that specializes in certifying fisheries, fleets, fish product brands and restaurants. Rather than focusing on one specific aspect of the fishing process such as FADs or dolphins, Friend of the Sea auditing covers everything related to sustainable fishing.


The “GF” or certified gluten-free label is issued by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization, also known as the Gluten Intolerance Group. This certification is most relevant for people with gluten intolerance conditions such as celiac disease. Tuna usually doesn’t contain gluten anyway, but the added peace of mind of the label can be valuable for some consumers.

Kosher (OU)

The “OU” symbol stands for Orthodox Union, the organization that certifies products as Kosher. This label doesn’t have much to do with sustainability, but it’s valuable if you seriously practice Judaism and want to keep Kosher at all times.


The Marine Stewardship Council offers one of the most popular tuna certifications in the industry. Like Friends of the Sea, it’s a sort of catch-all for sustainability.

Non-GMO Project Verified

As recently as 2015, major brands of tuna such as Bumble Bee were using genetically modified organisms [GMOs]. The Non-GMO Project verified label (usually an orange butterfly resting on a blade of grass) shows the brand has proven that the product is free of GMOs.

Pole & Line

Pole & Line is exactly what it sounds like: tuna caught by fishermen with nothing but fishing rods. It is arguably the most sustainable method in the industry. Unfortunately there isn’t much access to Pole & Line products because the process is less efficient than using nets.

Organizations Associated With This Label:

Whole30 Approved

Whole30 Approved tuna can be part of your diet if you decide to try the Whole30 program, a 30-day period where you follow a strict set of nutritional rules (eating only whole foods, cutting artificial sugar, dairy, alcohol, etc.).



Albacore is one of the most common breeds of tuna. Most fishing nonprofits consider it sustainable because the species is so abundant.


Bigeye is not a sustainable breed of tuna. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program recommends fishing more sustainable breeds or entirely avoiding the fishing of bigeye tuna.


Bycatch are sea creatures unintentionally caught along with the target fish. One of the goals of sustainable tuna fishing is to reduce bycatch as much as possible.

Circle Hook

A type of hook that, according to the World Wildlife Fund, reduces the bycatch of certain sea creatures such as turtles.

Free School-Caught

This term refers to a school of fish that is swimming around freely, as opposed to being lured by a FAD. The phrase often acts as a synonym for FAD-free


Handline fishing takes a ton of skill because it doesn’t use a rod. Like pole and line, it is one of the most sustainable methods of fishing.

Light Tuna

This term refers to sustainable species of tuna such as skipjack and yellowfin.

Long Lines

Long line fishing uses hundreds of hooks that hang from a single line stretching for dozens of miles. This method is not sustainable at all. It’s common for brands to imply they are sustainable by claiming “no long lines” or similar language.

Purse Seines

One of the most popular methods for tuna fishing, purse seines uses a large net to enclose a school of fish. As the name references, the mechanism is similar to a drawstring purse. Without FADs, purse seine fishing can be sustainable, according to the Marine Stewardship Council.


Skipjack is one of the most sustainable species of fish.


This term doesn’t really mean anything on its own. It depends on how much you trust the brand.


Tongol, also called longtail, is one of the smallest species of tuna. Found in the Indo-Pacific region, this fish is not one of the more sustainable breeds.


Trolling is a fishing method where lines are drawn through the water. Greenpeace has stated that it is one of the more sustainable methods of tuna fishing.


Turtles are often injured or killed as bycatch during tuna fishing. “Turtle-safe” implies the fishermen have avoided this collateral damage, but the language doesn’t have as much accountability as “dolphin-safe.”


This phrase doesn’t have a consistent meaning, but it usually implies the brand didn’t use a FAD or fish farm.

White Tuna

White tuna usually refers to albacore.


Another one of the most sustainable species of tuna.

Look Out for Yourself, Too

Once you know your tuna is sustainable for the environment, make sure it’s good for you, too. Watch out for high levels of mercury that can be poisonous. To avoid consuming too much sodium, eat tuna in moderation. That way it can be part of a healthy, balanced diet.

Public Goods tuna is skipjack, one of the most sustainable breeds. Friend of the Sea has certified that our manufacturer is sustainable (includes FAD-free and dolphin-safe). Our product is also Non-GMO Project verified, Whole30 Approved, certified paleo and endorsed by the American Pregnancy Association.

Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.

From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.