Part of the mackerel family, tuna was virtually unknown to most Americans before the twentieth century, There was no canned fish of any kind, and tuna was considered undesirable (except by cats). In 1910, Americans were eating only about seven pounds of fish a year, compared to 60 pounds of beef, 60 pounds of pork and around 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 far inland, where local meat and poultry prevailed. The majority of consumable fish came from lakes and rivers. Perishability was also a factor, which limited shipping capabilities throughout the country. Those with access to the coasts preferred shellfish and other varieties, like cod, sole and haddock. It’s 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 coast of the Mediterranean, Phoenician fishermen were harvesting tuna 2000 years ago, primarily the abundant bluefin variety, which is now virtually extinct. Greek philosopher Aristotle mentions tuna in some of his writings back in 350 B.C. The Greeks encouraged eating tuna for its nutritional and healing powers (or what they believed were healing powers at the time.
Tuna played a major role in sushi consumption back 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 A.D. Eventually, Japanese immigrants brought sushi to Los Angeles in the early 1900s and it slowly moved across the country to the East Coast. By the 1980s its popularity exploded and there seems to be no end in sight.
Meanwhile, down the coast in San Diego the tuna industry had been flourishing since the late 1880s, thanks to the large concentration of Portuguese fishermen. Canneries popped up along the docks and SD soon became known as “The Tuna Capital of the World.” Originally albacore tuna could be easily caught from small boats in the abundant Pacific waters, which gave way to larger fishing fleets and more canneries. While much of the catch was eaten locally, excess was sent up the coast to L.A. and points north, primarily San Francisco, where a sizeable Asian population lived. At first shipped in barrels, a local sardine cannery began preparing other fish, particularly longfin tuna and albacore, cooked and canned. It tasted similar to white chicken meat, thus the description was coined, “chicken of the sea.” Canneries provided thousands of jobs as they multiplied along the wharves of San Diego. The canned fish (originally in olive oil) offered convenience, long shelf life and affordability, and as it became more widespread, its popularity skyrocketed. But as foreign competition continued to expand, particularly in Japan, the SD canneries could no longer compete and eventually closed their doors. Bumble Bee brand succumbed after 70 years of production. Certainly not the most glamorous of jobs, workers were sad to see the doors close on what was once a thriving industry. Although no longer operating 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’d never be able to look a tuna sandwich in the eye again.)
In the U.S., canned seafood sales have fallen by nearly 30 percent since 1999. By 2012, canned tuna was a measly 16 percent of all fish and seafood consumed in the country, bottoming out at the its lowest consumption in nearly 60 years. Salmon has nosed out tuna in popularity, as more fish farming has increased supplies and availability. But lest you despair, here are a few guidelines to quell anyone’s fears about the major types of tuna:
Albacore white tuna can be one of the healthiest fish, provided it’s caught in the U.S. or British Columbia (sorry, Japan);
Albacore, bigeye and yellowfin can be sustainable, and thus the best tuna varieties to buy;
Sorry sushi lovers, but tests have confirmed that bluefin tuna, which is still used for sushi, has some of the highest mercury levels; use your own good judgement and ask questions before you order (as an endangered variety, you shouldn’t be eating bluefin, anyway);
So there you have it, tuna fans. Moderation is always advisable. And while some people may have given up tuna altogether, there really is no need to forego a favorite fish which is versatile, economical and just downright delicious. And please make sure you also practice moderation with your cat’s favorite food. Enjoy.