Tinned Fish is Trending. But Can You Trust the Label? - Modern Farmer

Tinned Fish is Trending. But Can You Trust the Label?

The vintage staple is cool again, thanks to social media influencers and trendy shops. But is the fish as good for the environment as it might claim?

Photography courtesy of Fishtown Seafood.

Tinned fish is hot. 

The colorful packages are trending on Tik Tok and Instagram, (#tinfish has 38.6 million views on the latter platform), with influencers touting high nutrient value, long shelf life and convenience. Cookbooks such as Tin to Table  by Anna Hezel and The Magic of Tinned Fish by Chris McDade feature tinned-fish recipes. In the United States, the tinned-fish industry has been valued at almost $9.5 billion, and a package of tinned fish can range in price from $8 to $27, depending on the brand and the fish species.

That can be a pricey can of sardines. Many brands claim the high price tag is due to their sustainable practices, but in a complex seafood system, that can mean something different for every brand. For each purveyor, sustainable practices can mean different methods of sourcing, canning and labeling tins; there is no universal standard for a product to be labeled as sustainable. 

For some purveyors of tinned fish, sustainability is about the carbon footprint. For others, it’s about recognizing the labor of the fishermen or utilizing bycatch, fish caught unintentionally when fishing for specific species or sizes of fish. “I really try to avoid the word ‘sustainable.’ Food systems are so extractive, to use [the term]) ‘sustainability’ is really complicated,” says Bryan Szeliga, owner of Fishtown Seafood in Philadelphia

Bryan Szeliga, owner of Fishtown Seafood in Philadelphia.

 Sara Hauman, chef and founder of the Tiny Fish Co. in Seattle, says she wanted to reduce her carbon footprint by sourcing local fish species and canning locally. Hauman uses bycatch and sells less-well-known species that are caught in the Pacific Northwest, including rockfish, geoduck and black cod. 

“I feel it’s a more responsible decision than throwing them overboard,” says Hauman. She sources her octopus from bycatch and says one 15-kilogram octopus can produce around 100 tins of octopus in butter with lemon and dill. Hauman develops the recipes herself and works with local fisherman and a local cannery to produce her tinned fish. “Historically, canned fish has been a cheap pantry staple, but I feel strongly that fish should be expensive because it is a fleeting food resource,” says Hauman, who wants consumers to view tinned fish as a gourmet item. 

But for every brand that is trying to be transparent, there are also purveyors that may not think twice about greenwashing a seafood product’s labels. “Perfection in labeling might not be possible. With that said, there is some level of responsibility that [seafood sellers] need to take if they want to make a profit off of buying and selling seafood,” says Szeliga, who adds that honest mistakes can be made in a complicated seafood industry. 

Sometimes, tinned fish can be mislabeled, as it was when he placed an order for squid ink and instead received cuttlefish ink. Cuttlefish are much harder to sustainably trace—that is, to know where and when they were caught and if they were ethically sourced. Szeliga says  there is simply not enough information on the stock status of cuttlefish, meaning whether they were overfished or not, and consumers will see the country of origin labeling as where it was processed, not where it is actually from. 

Szeliga has a critical eye for sourcing and wants consumers to be skeptical of labels. “Octopus can be caught in Morocco or Mauritania, but since it is processed in Spain or Portugal, it gets the country-of-origin label from where it is processed.” Szeliga says that aspects of catch composition, species, harvesting methods, transport means and using salt for moisture retention should be considered when discussing seafood sustainability.   

Conditions for fishermen are not always transparent and can be overlooked in the narratives around sustainable fish. “The ocean is a dangerous place—weather can turn bad in an instant and mistakes can be life-threatening when out in the open sea,” says Hauman. She encourages consumers to remember “wild-caught fish” means the fishing crew has risked their lives.  

The tinned-fish industry in Europe has been around for nearly two centuries, with market share continuing to grow. In 2021, it was worth an estimated $4.95 billion. European canneries often support smaller tinned-fish companies and brands that don’t produce at a high volume. In the United States, more canneries are on the West Coast, making it difficult for some purveyors to source fish locally with a low carbon footprint.

FANGST, a tinned-fish company based in Denmark, also uses bycatch, fishes in regional waters and maintains Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certifications. For MSC certification, the company must fish only healthy stocks, which can be fished for the long term, and must minimize impact on other species and the wider ecosystem. 

The certifications need to be as transparent as they expect the seafood supply chain to be,” says Szeliga, who is concerned that certifications allow seafood companies to stay certified even when certain conditions lapse. He adds that while certifications have some value, finding compliance standards and company audits are often difficult for consumers. 

“It’s not good enough to say we are sustainable. We are open to work with even stricter certifications if they existed in our region,” says Martin Bregnballe, the founder of FANGST. Bregnballe says he hopes he will one day be able to label his tinned fish with the fisherman’s name, time of catch and the specific area where the fish was caught.

Bregnballe says he hopes that FANGST tinned fish such as baltic sprat and Norwegian sea herring will encourage people to eat more small fish that feed on plankton instead of eating predatory fish, which is better for the environment and provides more Omega-3 fatty acids (than eating predatory fish) instead of turning them into fishmeal and animal feed. “The huge local catch of ‘Brisling’ [sprat] is used for fishmeal. However, calculations show that if we eat the fish ourselves instead of feeding them to the pigs, we could cover one-third of Denmark’s protein needs by this catch alone.” 

As the tinned-fish industry grows, purveyors hope that transparency will help them stand out in a crowded marketplace. “As a chef, I would never write ‘house-made pasta’ on a menu and use dried pasta,” says Hauman. “Maybe I’m not the best business person, but it means more to be honest to consumers.”

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jean Clelland-Morin
11 months ago

My cats Love tinned Sardines in Tomato sauce. I am VEGAN. The Earth should not have Non-Vegans & animals proliferated as “pets”. We are burning up ! 🌱

Ralph Pettaway
11 months ago

So they’re canning by-catch, charging a fortune for it, and claiming it “should be expensive” mostly because it’s in their own interests to have a high price point. All the real work is farmed out: the fishing and the canning. There’s a lot of snob appeal going on here, simultaneously adopting a hipster attitude about how righteous they are.