Part of the mackerel family, tuna was virtually unknown to most Americans before the 20th century. There was no canned fish of any kind and tuna was considered undesirable (except for cats). In 1910, Americans ate only about seven pounds of fish a year, compared to 60 pounds of beef, 60 pounds of pork, and about 15 pounds of chicken. Of course, availability and cost played a key factor in these figures since tuna is a saltwater fish, and most people lived inland, where local meats and poultry prevailed. Most of the consumable fish came from lakes and rivers. Expiration was also a factor that limited shipping capabilities across the country. Those with access to the coast preferred shellfish and other varieties, such as cod, sole, and haddock. It is highly unlikely that foodie President Thomas Jefferson ever served tuna salad or grilled ahi steaks at the White House.
However, in other parts of the world, it was a different menu. On the Mediterranean coast, Phoenician fishermen caught tuna 2,000 years ago, mainly the abundant variety of bluefin tuna, which is now virtually extinct. The Greek philosopher Aristotle mentions tuna in some of his writings as early as 350 BC. The Greeks encouraged eating tuna for its nutritional and healing powers (or what they believed to be healing powers at the time).
Tuna played an important role in sushi consumption in Southeast Asia, where fermented fish and rice were eaten for centuries. It appears to have been introduced to China and then Japan around the 8th century AD. Sushi was eventually brought to Los Angeles by Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century and slowly moved across the country to the East Coast. In the 1980s, his popularity skyrocketed and there seems to be no end in sight.
Meanwhile, off the coast of San Diego, the tuna industry had been flourishing since the late 1880s, thanks to a large concentration of Portuguese fishermen. Canneries sprang up along the docks and SD soon became known as “The Tuna Capital of the World.” Originally, yellowfin tuna could be easily caught from small boats in the abundant waters of the Pacific, giving way to larger fishing fleets and more canneries. While much of the catch was consumed locally, the excess was shipped to the Los Angeles coast and points north, primarily San Francisco, where a sizeable Asian population lived. At first it was shipped in barrels, but a local sardine cannery began preparing other fish, notably longfin and albacore tuna, cooked and canned. It tasted similar to white meat chicken, thus the description, “chicken of the sea”, was coined. Canneries provided thousands of jobs as they multiplied along San Diego’s docks. Canned fish (originally in olive oil) offered convenience, long shelf life, and affordability, and as it became more widespread, its popularity soared. But as foreign competition continued to expand, particularly in Japan, the SD canneries were no longer able to compete and eventually closed their doors. The Bumble Bee brand succumbed after 70 years of production. Certainly not the most glamorous of jobs, workers were sad to see the doors closing on what was once a thriving industry. Although they no longer operate canneries locally, both Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea (originally Van Camp Seafood) still maintain corporate headquarters there. (This author confesses that after eight hours a day on the assembly line, she could never look a tuna sandwich in the eye again.)
In the US, sales of canned seafood have fallen nearly 30% since 1999. In 2012, canned tuna accounted for just 16% of all fish and shellfish consumed in the country, reaching the lowest level of consumption in almost 60 years. Salmon has overtaken tuna in popularity as more fish farming has increased supplies and availability. But lest you despair, here are some guidelines to calm anyone’s fears about the main types of tuna:
White albacore tuna can be one of the healthiest fish, as long as it’s caught in the US or British Columbia (sorry, Japan);
Albacore, bigeye and yellowfin tuna may be sustainable and therefore the best varieties of tuna to buy;
Sorry, sushi lovers, but tests have confirmed that bluefin tuna, which is still used for sushi, has some of the highest levels of mercury; use your best judgment and ask questions before ordering (as an endangered variety, you shouldn’t be eating bluefin anyway);
So there you have it, tuna fans. Moderation is always recommended. And while some people may have given up tuna altogether, there’s really no need to give up a favorite fish that’s versatile, inexpensive, and utterly delicious. And be sure to practice moderation with your cat’s favorite food, too. Enjoy.