Albacore is available canned and fresh and frozen whole fish, loins and steaks. Depending on where it’s caught, albacore is light brown or pinkish red, and it’s the only canned tuna allowed to be marketed as “white” instead of “light." Imported canned albacore is usually cooked twice, while small canneries on the U.S. West Coast put raw pieces of the fish in cans and cook them once in their own juices. Off the West Coast, albacore boats either brine freeze or blast freeze their catch. Brine-frozen fish gets canned, while most blast-and-bled albacore goes to the sashimi market. Pole and troll-caught albacore is usually bled on landing, leaving flesh lighter in color; bloody flecks mean that the fish wasn’t bled. Albacore tuna has low sodium and is known to be a good source of vitamins A and B12, as well as selenium and niacin.
Key sustainability sourcing notes based on average landings of albacore tuna from 2016-2017 and using the most recent Seafood Watch assessments and MSC certifications as of June, 2019:
~25% of global albacore tuna landings and ~95% of U.S. landings meet a Seafood Watch "Best Choice (green)" rating globally (For U.S. landings pole and troll-caught is ~60% from Washington and ~30% from Oregon)
~15% of albacore tuna landings globally are MSC-certified
~5% of U.S. landings (longline-caught: Hawaii and U.S. Atlantic) meet a Seafood Watch "Good Alternative (yellow)" rating
~70% of albacore tuna landings globally (longline-caught: ~50% from the South Pacific, ~25% from the Indian Ocean, ~20% from the North Pacific) meet a Seafood Watch "Avoid (red)" rating
Global landings in 2017 increased ~10% compared to 2016 but decreased ~5% compared to 2014
Albacore tuna are built for speed – having a thick, short, torpedo-shaped body with a slender tail. They have streamlined fins with a dark front dorsal fin and a pale yellow rear dorsal fin. Albacore tuna’s pectoral fins extend over half the length of their bodies. Their skin is smooth and is a dark metallic blue on their backs to a silvery light coloration on their bellies. Like other tunas, albacore possess a highly evolved circulatory system with countercurrent exchangers that prevent heat loss through musculature activity. This allows the tuna to regulate their body temperature to higher levels than the surrounding water and increases muscle efficiency helping the tuna to reach and maintain high speeds that can exceed 50 miles per hour. Regulating body temperature also allows the tuna to inhabit a wide range of temperatures in the water column as well as geographically. In order to maintain a high internal body temperature, albacore have fast metabolic rates that demand a large supply of oxygen and food. Albacore lack a swim bladder and have lost many of the structures found in other fish needed to pump water over their gills in order to obtain oxygen. As such, they are constantly swimming with their mouths open to force oxygen-rich water over their gills. Additionally, albacore tuna have higher blood pressures and volume than most other fish, and have hemoglobin concentrations similar to those found in humans – all of which increases the oxygen-absorption process.
As top predators in their ecosystem, albacore tuna play a significant role in the food chain. They are opportunistic hunters and are believed to primarily hunt during the day at the ocean surface to depths of 1640 feet (500 meters). They are thought to be sight feeders using their eyes to identify and prey on schooling sardines, anchovies, and cephalopods – with the latter accounting for the majority of their diet. Given their body’s high-energy demands it is believed that they may consume up to 25 percent of their body weight every day. Similarly sized albacore form large schools that can be up to 19 miles wide. Compared to other tuna they do not mix with other species as much and do not associate with floating objects.
Females are broadcast spawners and can produce between 800,000 and 2.6 million eggs every time they spawn – with mature females spawning multiple times throughout the year. Eggs are fertilized externally, develop rapidly, and hatch with 24 to 48 hours after fertilization. Eggs, larvae, and juveniles experience a high mortality rate. To combat these high mortality rates albacore experience rapid growth rates when they are younger, but then grow at a slower rate as they age and mature. They can reach up to four feet (1.2 meters) long and weigh up to 80 pounds. Albacore reach maturity between five to six years old at which time they can then successfully reproduce. Adults can live up to 12 years old. They are preyed upon by larger species of sharks, billfish, and tuna.
Albacore tuna are found in the warm, temperate waters of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. There are six managed populations of albacore tuna: North and South Pacific Ocean, North and South Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea. Smaller subpopulations may occur in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean and some intermingling may occur between different populations in the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Albacore are pelagic and prefer the open ocean – rarely coming close to shore. Much of their time is spent near-surface waters in the epipelagic zone (where there is enough sunlight for photosynthesis) and the mesopelagic zone (where light still penetrates but is insufficient for photosynthesis). Albacore are renowned for their extensive annual migrations and ability to swim long distances. Oceanic conditions such as temperature, salinity, and ocean color and clarity are all thought to play a role in influencing albacore tuna migrations. Temperature perhaps plays the most significant role in albacore distribution as they prefer ranges between 53 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit (13 and 22 degrees Celsius) and it is thought that these thermal preferences act as a movement barrier between different regions and populations. Albacore tunas, and in particular, juveniles, are attracted to upwelling fronts where cold, nutrient-rich water from the deep ocean rises to the warmer surface water. These fronts attract a variety of smaller prey that are then fed upon by the tuna.
Science & Management
NOAA Fisheries scientists continue to research improvements in how they model changes in the Atlantic albacore tuna populations and the impact of fishing on the resource. The Southwest Fisheries Science Center in California conducts research on Pacific albacore stocks to learn more about their biology and ecology to sustainably manage the resource.
Southwest Fisheries Science Center scientists work with the American Fishermen’s Research Foundation to develop monitoring programs and other research efforts to improve knowledge of the biology and migration of Pacific albacore stocks. In 2001, a project was developed to learn more about the migration habits of north Pacific albacore tuna. The goal is to understand the stock’s movements well enough to use them effectively in stock assessment modeling or when developing management guidelines. Tags are deployed off the United States West Coast, with a reward offer upon return of a tagged albacore. 504 electronic archival tags have been deployed, and only two recovered.
NOAA Fisheries and NOAA Fisheries’ Atlantic Highly Migratory Species (HMS) Division are responsible for managing the US Atlantic albacore tuna fishery under the authority of the Atlantic Tunas Convention Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Atlantic albacore tuna, along with other Atlantic HMS like sharks, swordfish, and other tuna species, are managed under the 2006 Consolidated Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan (FMP). Under the FMP, federal management regulations apply to all US states with the exception of Maine, Connecticut, and Mississippi. Among measures the FMP includes are permit requirements, time and area closures, and gear restrictions.
Albacore tuna are a highly migratory species that move between the jurisdiction of multiple nations as well as the high seas, and as such their management requires international cooperation. The United Nations Law of the Sea indicates that the management of HMS be carried out through Regional Fishery Management Organizations (RFMOs). RFMOs are the only legally mandated fishery management body on the high seas. The RFMO responsible for the management of Atlantic tunas, as well as other Atlantic HMS, is the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). ICCAT is made up of 51 contracting parties including the United States, Canada, Japan, China, Russia, and the United Kingdom and is responsible for management of the three albacore stocks in the Atlantic: the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Mediterranean. ICCAT assesses the abundance of Atlantic albacore tuna and evaluates current and proposed harvest practices. All contracting parties must record and report catch and effort data which ICCAT then uses to set total allowable catch (TAC) limits. In the North Atlantic, ICCAT allocates TACs to the European Union, Taiwan, Venezuela, and the US while in the South Atlantic, albacore is managed under country-specific TACs. In 2009, ICCAT instituted a rebuilding plan for North Atlantic albacore with the goal of rebuilding albacore populations by 2019. Additional management measures include a vessel-monitoring program for large vessels (over 65 feet long) and bycatch mitigation measures. There is currently no albacore-specific recovery plan in place in the South Atlantic, but management measures are in place to aid in the tuna’s recovery. ICCAT conducts stock assessments for both the North and South Atlantic every four to six years. NOAA Fisheries uses conservation and management measures adopted by ICCAT, along with their own research, to set regulations for the US Atlantic albacore fishery.
NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Fishery Management Council manage the albacore tuna fishery on the US West Coast under the Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for US West Coast Fisheries for Highly Migratory Species. In Hawaii and the US Pacific Island territories, NOAA Fisheries and the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council manage the albacore tuna fishery in the US Pacific under the Fishery Ecosystem Plan for Pelagic Fisheries of the Western Pacific. These plans are similar in that both set permit requirements, gear restrictions to minimize bycatch, and documentation and reporting requirements for catch.
Like their Atlantic counterparts, Pacific albacore tuna are highly migratory, cross international boundaries and the high seas, and are fished by many nations. As such, their management also requires international cooperation. In the North and South Pacific, albacore, along with other tuna and HMS, are managed by two RFMOs: the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) which is the RFMO in charge of managing the international and high seas albacore fishery in the Western Central Pacific Ocean. IATTC is composed of over 20 different nations including the United States, Canada, China, Belize, Costa Rica, and Mexico while the WCPFC is composed of over 25 member countries including Australia, China, New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, France, the United States, and the Republic of Korea. Both RFMOs are responsible for setting management and compliance measures that all participating member nations must adhere to. There are relatively few albacore- specific management measures in place in the North Pacific; however, both RFMOs do work to maintain current harvest levels (average effort between 2002 and 2004) and the species is regularly monitored and assessed in the North Pacific. As of 2017, the majority of North Pacific albacore was caught using longline gear (39 percent) followed by pole and line gear (36 percent). Longline use; however, has been on the decline since 1997. There are also few albacore-specific management measures in place in the South Pacific though the WCPFC has mandated that the number of fishing vessels cannot exceed 2005 levels or historical levels between 2000 and 2004. That vast majority (96 percent) of South Pacific albacore are caught using longline gear (as of 2017). Neither the North nor South Pacific stocks are overfished or subject to overfishing. NOAA, along with the US Department of State, works domestically to implement any conservation measures set forth by the IATTC and WCPFC.
While there are few albacore-specific management measures in place in the Pacific, both the IATTC and WCPFC have adopted measures to reduce bycatch that may take place in the albacore fishery. Member countries are asked to implement the International Plan of Action for Reducing Incidental Catches of Seabirds in Longline Fisheries. Additionally, both RFMOs require members to implement the FAO Guidelines to Reduce Sea Turtle Mortality in Fishing Operations and require longline vessels to carry line cutters and de-hookers. Member nations are encouraged to use circle hooks and follow proper handling and release guidelines in the case of incidental sea turtle capture. Member nations are also to implement the FAO International Plan of Action for the Conservation and management of sharks and all RFMO member nations are prohibited from landing, retaining, storing, and shipping oceanic whitetip and silky sharks.
The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) is the RFMO charged with managing albacore tuna in the Indian OceaThere are currently 31 members (majority are nation states) in the IOTC. Among management measures in place for member countries are: requirements that countries report the number of vessels exceeding 78 feet long (and under 78 feet long if fishing outside their exclusive economic zone), vessel monitoring requirements, a Fleet Development Plan for capacity control, bycatch mitigation strategies (particularly with sea turtles, juvenile tunas, and sharks), and observer coverage (IOTC requires at least five percent of vessels have an observer). Additionally, member countries are required to record and report catch and effort data by species and gear type. IOTC members are also required to submit any information regarding Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated vessels to the Commission.
Albacore tuna are migratory and have a high reproductive rate, making it fairly resilient to fishing pressure. However, the species’ schooling and spawning behavior makes it easier for fishermen to target and catch them. Albacore tuna are currently overfished in the North and South Atlantic, and are undergoing overfishing in the South Atlantic according to a 2014 Seafood Watch report. Populations of albacore tuna in the Pacific Ocean are healthy, and overfishing is not occurring there. In the Indian Ocean, albacore tuna is currently undergoing overfishing but they are not overfished.
Habitat impacts (Wild)
Different fishing gear types are used to catch albacore tuna. In the Pacific, most albacore tuna is caught using troll and pole-and-line gear, which does not damage the seafloor. They are also caught with purse seine, drift gillnet gear and longlines. Longline gear doesn’t impact bottom habitats because it operates at or near the surface. Purse seines also have little contact with the seafloor, although Seafood Watch points out that fish aggregating devices (FADs) can be anchored to the bottom. Overall, habitat damage tends to be minor in this fishery.
Although fishing gear types vary by region, most albacore fishermen use longlines. These hooks accidentally ensnare and kill endangered sea turtles and sharks, as well as different kinds of marine mammals, billfish and seabirds. Longline tuna vessels in the Atlantic are required to collect and report bycatch and discard information. They must have equipment for the safe handling, disentanglement and release of sea turtles, and the captain must be trained on correct techniques. Starting in 2013, countries in the Atlantic that have not reported shortfin mako shark catch data are prohibited from catching them, according to a 2014 Seafood Watch report. Troll and pole-and-line gear result in significantly less bycatch.
Due to their migratory nature, albacore tuna are managed by several different bodies around the world. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) manages them in the Atlantic. Although Seafood Watch called ICCAT’s rebuilding and recovery plans for albacore tuna moderately effective, the Commission’s bycatch strategy was rated ineffective because it doesn’t meet best practices. There are no bycatch cap or catch limits.
Albacore tuna are managed in the U.S. and Canadian longline fisheries by the National Marine Fisheries Service and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. While Seafood Watch rated most of the management strategies as moderately effective, the bycatch strategy was called ineffective in the Canadian North Atlantic longline fishery because it does not require best practices for reducing incidental shark capture. Observer coverage was also lacking.
The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) and the Sri Lankan Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences manage tuna in those regions. The management was given a red score by Seafood Watch due to a lack of measures to improve monitoring, a lack of total allowable catch, lack of bycatch data as well as poor bycatch mitigation. A scientific committee recommended reducing albacore tuna fishing mortality by 20% to maintain the stock but no management measures have been adopted to address it. Seafood Watch also pointed to IUU fishing issues in the Indian Ocean.
In the Pacific, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (WPRFMC) and the state of Hawaii all manage tuna. Measures in the western and central Pacific Ocean were called moderately effective in a 2014 Seafood Watch report. However, management in the eastern Pacific longline fishery did not meet best practice requirements and scientific advice was not always followed, according to a separate report.