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What is a Tuna?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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There are nine recognized species of tuna, which is a marine fish which spends the majority of its life in the middle depths of open water. Tuna is probably the most widely commercially harvested fish family, with more being landed every year by heavy producers such as Japan, France, the United States, Taiwan, and Spain. The meat appears in a wide range of traditional foods as well as canned, and the growing numbers of tuna being fished have raised concerns about the longevity of the family.

All tuna species are fished commercially, but Bluefin, Yellow fin, Albacore, and Skipjack are the most heavily fished. Bluefin, in particular, is highly prized in Japan, where the fish of the highest quality is used in sushi and sashimi. Albacore and Skipjack are often cooked and canned in oil or water for sale throughout the world, and Yellow fin is frequently labeled as “Ahi” for sale in Hawaii and along the Western coast of the United States.

Tuna tends to have darker meat than some other fish species, which stands up well to grilling and other robust cooking operations. The meat is high in protein and Omega 3, but unfortunately also accumulates mercury, like many fish species. As a result, consumers should limit their consumption, with some biologists recommending a serving or less per month for some species, particularly Bluefin.

This fish has traditionally been caught for commercial use in large nets, many of which inadvertently capture dolphins as well. After a public awareness campaign about the affectionate marine mammals encouraged a boycott of the tuna industry, many commercial companies began taking steps to prevent dolphins from being caught along with their tuna, billing the result as “dolphin safe.” Some is also caught on long lines, especially by sport fishermen who enjoy doing battle with the muscular and determined fish.

Tuna is popular among humans because it does not have a strong fishy flavor, and consumers who do not like fish will often eat tuna. It is an extremely versatile fish, thanks to the sturdy flesh, and can be found canned, dried, fermented, and fresh across most of the world. Fresh fish is landed daily at major fish markets in the United States, Asia, and Europe, and can be accessed by consumers within days, with some species such as the prized Bluefin being processed as rapidly as possible to ensure freshness.

Because the fast swimming fish has been heavily harvested, many conservation organizations have sounded warnings about the health of tuna stocks, particularly the southern Bluefin, which is considered to be endangered. Other species are in questionable health as well, with many nations taking large illegal harvests in addition to their internationally agreed upon quota. Tuna catches are declining in numbers, particularly in the Atlantic, where severe restrictions were undertaken in the early 21st century in an attempt to restore stocks of the fish.

Some nations have experimented with tuna farming successfully, and a growing number of the fish for sale is farmed tuna, providing an ecologically sustainable alternative to concerned consumers. Bluefin in particular has proven to be amenable to aquaculture in Australia, suggesting that in addition to providing human food, the farmed fish may be able to replenish depleted wild stocks as well.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a tuna?

Tuna are saltwater fish from the tribe Thunnini, a subgroup of the Scombridae (mackerel) family. They are known for their speed, size, and culinary popularity. Tuna species range from the small skipjack, often used in canned tuna, to the majestic bluefin, which can weigh over 450 kilograms and is highly prized in sushi cuisine.

How many species of tuna are there?

There are approximately eight species of tuna, commonly divided into two categories: bluefin and yellowfin groups. The bluefin group includes the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern bluefin tunas. The yellowfin group includes species like yellowfin tuna, albacore, bigeye, blackfin, and the skipjack tuna, according to the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation.

What is the largest species of tuna and how big can it get?

The largest species of tuna is the Atlantic bluefin tuna, which can reach lengths of up to 3 meters and weigh as much as 680 kilograms. These giants of the ocean are known for their impressive size and strength, making them a top predator in their marine ecosystems, as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

How fast can a tuna swim?

Tuna are among the fastest swimmers in the ocean, with some species like the yellowfin tuna capable of reaching speeds up to 75 kilometers per hour. Their streamlined bodies and powerful tails enable them to traverse vast ocean distances and capture swift prey, making them highly efficient predators, as noted by marine biologists.

Why is tuna considered an important fish for human consumption?

Tuna is a significant source of dietary protein and is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for heart health. It's a versatile fish that can be prepared in various ways, from fresh sashimi to canned products. The global tuna industry is substantial, with millions relying on tuna for sustenance and livelihood, as indicated by the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Are tuna species at risk of overfishing?

Some tuna species, particularly the bluefin tunas, are at risk of overfishing due to high demand, especially for sushi and sashimi markets. Overfishing has led to significant population declines, prompting international efforts to manage tuna fisheries sustainably. Organizations like the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas work to set quotas and protect these valuable species.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By shell4life — On Sep 08, 2012

@feasting – Tuna does taste good with teriyaki sauce. I used to buy these cooked tuna steaks in packages that were smothered in this sauce, and they were so delicious!

They were very affordable. One steak was more than enough for lunch.

I was really sad when the grocery stores in the area stopped carrying them. I would love to get my hands on a good teriyaki tuna steak again! If I ever see them for sale anywhere, I'm stocking up.

By kylee07drg — On Sep 07, 2012

My mother hates the taste of fish, but she will eated canned tuna. I have even caught her trying out a tuna recipe or two before.

She made a tuna loaf, which is like meat loaf but with fish. I'm not sure what all was in it, but I did see several macaroni noodles in the mix.

Her favorite lunch is a tuna salad sandwich. She mixes the tuna with pickles, a hard-boiled egg, and mayonnaise, and it tastes so much better than plain tuna out of the can.

By feasting — On Sep 06, 2012

Albacore tuna is the kind I see most often in cans on the supermarket shelves. I sometimes buy it and mix it with teriyaki sauce for extra flavor.

I like to heat the tuna with the sauce in a pain with green onions and corn. The flavors mesh well, and the dish is a healthy one.

I have to be sure to get all the tuna out of the can before I throw it in the trash. Tuna has a strong odor that only gets worse after a day or two in the trash.

By healthy4life — On Sep 06, 2012

I didn't know that Bluefin tuna was the stuff used in sushi! I also had no idea that I should only be eating it about once a month.

Sushi is my favorite food, and I go to a Japanese restaurant and order it at least two times a month. I suppose I should switch to the sushi that just contains crab and shrimp instead of tuna.

The menu never said what kind of tuna was in the sushi, but this is a high quality place, so it probably is Bluefin. I will have to warn my friends!

By somerset — On Jan 28, 2008

On one of my visits to the northern Adriatic I noticed some reminders of tuna fishing equipment. There are a number of something that looks like wooden stairs, the bottom of which is attached to the land and the top protruding way over the water. One fisherman would go to the top of those stairs, I was told, and wait for tuna to come within view, he would then signal to the rest of the fisherman who would catch them in nets. There is no more tuna in those parts of the Adriatic, just some reminders of times gone by.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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