Part of the mackerel family, tuna was virtually unknown to most Americans before the 20th century. There were 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, as tuna is a saltwater fish and most people lived inland where local meats and poultry were prevalent. Most of the consumable fish came from lakes and rivers. Perishability was also a factor limiting shipping capabilities across the country. Those with access to the coasts preferred shellfish and other varieties, such as cod, sole and haddock. It is highly unlikely that enthusiastic 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, now practically extinct. The Greek philosopher Aristotle mentions tuna in some of his writings in 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 consumed for centuries. It appears to have been introduced to China and then Japan around the 8th century AD. Over time, Japanese immigrants brought sushi to Los Angeles in the early 20th century and it slowly moved across the country to the east coast. In the 1980s, her popularity skyrocketed and there seems to be no end in sight.
Meanwhile, off the San Diego coast, the tuna industry had thrived since the late 1880s, thanks to the 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 in small boats in the abundant waters of the Pacific, giving way to larger and more conservative fishing fleets. While much of the catch was consumed locally, the excess was shipped up the coast to Los Angeles and points north, primarily to San Francisco, where a sizeable Asian population lived. Originally shipped in barrels, a local sardine canner began preparing other fish, particularly longfin and albacore tuna, cooked and canned. It tasted similar to white chicken meat, which is why the description was coined, “chicken of the sea.” Canneries provided thousands of jobs as they multiplied along the San Diego docks. Canned fish (originally in olive oil) offered convenience, long shelf life, and affordability, and as it became more popular, 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. The Bumble Bee brand succumbed after 70 years of production. It’s certainly not the most glamorous job, workers were saddened to see the doors close on what was once a thriving industry. Although canneries no longer operate 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 would never be able to look a tuna sandwich in the eye again.)
In the US, sales of canned seafood have fallen nearly 30 percent since 1999. By 2012, canned tuna was a measly 16 percent of all fish and shellfish consumed in the country, bottoming out in its consumption. lowest in almost 60 years. Salmon has surpassed tuna in popularity as more fish farming has increased supplies and availability. But lest you despair, here are some guidelines to allay anyone’s fears about the main types of tuna:
Albacore 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 can be sustainable and therefore the best varieties of tuna to buy;
Sorry sushi lovers, but testing has confirmed that bluefin tuna, which is still used for sushi, has some of the highest levels of mercury; use your own good judgment and ask questions before ordering (as an endangered variety, you shouldn’t be eating bluefin tuna, anyway);
There you have it, tuna fans. Moderation is always advisable. And while some people may have given up on tuna entirely, there really is no need to give up a favorite fish that is versatile, inexpensive, and simply delicious. And be sure to practice moderation with your cat’s favorite food, too. Enjoy.