Canned Tuna

Types and Sources of Products

The canned tuna industry is over 100 years old. Tuna canning began in the early 1900s to produce a substitute for canned sardines, and canned tuna quickly grew into one of the most popular seafood products in the United States. Currently canned tuna is the second most frequently consumed seafood product in the U.S. at 2.7 pounds per person per year. The U.S. catches less than 1% of the worldwide tuna harvest. Over half of the U.S. catch is albacore with approximately 26 million pounds landed each year from 2004-10. Bigeye and yellowfin are also harvested commercially in the U.S. in significant quantities. About 400 million pounds of canned tuna is imported into the U.S. from other countries each year. The major suppliers of canned tuna to the U.S include Thailand, Philippines, Ecuador and Indonesia. Imports of fresh and frozen tuna are primarily yellowfin tuna. The 5 main commercial tuna species are described below.

Albacore Tuna

  • Primarily sold in canned tuna as ‘white’ tuna meat.
  • Most of the canned albacore is caught in the open waters of the Pacific.
  • Albacore can live up to 12 years and can grow to 80 pounds in the open ocean.
  • U.S. caught albacore is primarily from the Pacific Coast but it is also caught in the Atlantic Ocean. It can be sold as fresh packed canned tuna or in loins.

Skipjack Tuna

  • Primarily sold as canned tuna and labeled as ‘light’ tuna.  
  • Almost all of the U.S. catch comes from the Pacific Ocean around Hawaii.
  • The majority of fresh and frozen skipjack tuna sold in the U.S. is imported from Mexico, South Korea and Ecuador.
  • Skipjack are smaller tuna that on average are 2 to 3 feet long and weigh 6 to 8 pounds.

Yellowfin Tuna

  • Yellowfin is often marketed as frozen tuna steaks or fresh loins or steaks.
  • A small amount is canned as ‘light’ tuna meat mixed with skipjack.
  • Yellowfin can grow up to 400 lbs and have a relatively short lifespan of 6 to 7 years.

Bigeye Tuna

  • Bigeye is commonly marketed by its Hawaiian name ‘ahi’.
  • Bigeye tuna can grow to 6.5 feet long and live up to 10 years.
  • Bigeye is frequently served in sashimi or sushi dishes or as fresh or frozen steaks or loins.

Bluefin Tuna

  • Atlantic Bluefin tuna is the highest valued Atlantic tuna species in the market.
  • Bluefin can live up to 30 years and grow to 1200 pounds.
  • Bluefin is used almost exclusively in sashimi or sushi dishes.

Product Forms

The canned tuna sold in supermarkets or in foodservice outlets, delis, or in tuna sandwiches is either albacore or a mixture of skipjack and yellowfin tuna. “Light tuna” which consists mostly of skipjack and small amounts of yellowfin is the less expensive product and represents the largest portion of canned tuna sales in the U.S. Albacore tuna is the only species authorized to be labeled 'white meat tuna' in the United States. Fresh or frozen tuna loins or steaks sold in retail stores and restaurants are generally yellowfin, bigeye, or albacore tuna. High quality or "sushi grade" bigeye and bluefin tuna are delicacies that are usually used in sushi and sashimi dishes.


Canned tuna is a good source of essential nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, high quality protein, selenium and Vitamin D. Most tuna species have approximately 1 to a maximum of 5 grams of fat per 100 gram (3.5 ounce) portion and less than 50 milligrams of cholesterol and sodium. Tuna also provides an important dietary source of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids needed for good heart health, brain function and normal growth and development. Albacore and bluefin tuna have the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids followed by skipjack and yellowfin. The canning process creates a convenient, nutritious product with a long shelf-life that is a good source of protein and other nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids. The nutritional composition of canned tuna products is influenced by the liquid (oil or water) that it is packed in and whether or not other ingredients such as salt are added. Nutritional labels provide a basis to compare these products.

Management and Sustainability

As a highly migratory fish, tuna can travel thousands of miles in their lifetime, making it an accessible fishery for many nations around the globe. The commercial tuna fishery in the Pacific Ocean accounts for over 60% of the tuna caught worldwide. Highly migratory species require international cooperation for fishery management. The U.S. is a member of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) as well as the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC). Both organizations have been created to conserve and manage tuna fisheries in the Pacific Ocean. Pacific albacore tuna caught along the U.S. Pacific coast recently received sustainability certification through the Marine Stewardship Council. In the Atlantic Ocean the U.S. is a member of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. The U.S. domestic fishery is managed by the NOAA Fisheries Service Highly Migratory Species Management Division.


National Marine Fisheries Service, 2015. 

NOAA FishWatch