Bumble Bee CEO: The end of cheap tuna?

Bumble Bee Foods is a survivor. Founded in 1899, Bumble Bee, which is headquartered in San Diego,  owns two of the last three canned tuna factories in the U.S. (in southern California and Puerto Rico) and one of the last two canned clams plants (in Cape May, N.J.). The company went bankrupt in the late 1990s but it has emerged stronger, and it’s now North America’s largest branded shelf-stable seafood company.

But Bumble Bee’s tuna business, which accounts for more than half of its revenues of close to $1 billion, has a new worry: If the world’s fisherman can’t agree to  intelligently manage capacity, tuna stocks could well be threatened.

Chris Lischewski

“We’re at maximum sustainable yield,” says Chris Lischewski, Bumble Bee’s president and CEO.

Bumble Bee itself doesn’t own fishing boats–it’s a processor and marketer of  seafood–but its future obviously depends on a reliable supply of fish.

I met Chris a week ago at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference, where I led a panel on sustainable seafood. (Tomorrow, I’ll blog about Josh Goldman of Australis, who also spoke.) A former management consultant who has run Bumble Bee since 1999, Chris told me that he didn’t worry much about fish supplies until the mid-2000s when it became apparent to him that global efforts to regulate tuna fishing weren’t working.

In response, Bumble Bee with the World Wildlife Fund and industry rivals, including Starkist (a unit of Korean fishing conglomerate Dongwon) and Chicken of the Sea (now owned by a Thai parent), created the nonprofit International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) in 2009. Chris now chairs its board, and he has had to become an expert in fisheries management.

He told me that responsible operators in the seafood industry and mainstream environmentalists share a common goal, for the most part: They want to preserve the world’s wild fish. That doesn’t mean they always agree, of course. Greenpeace Canada, for example, spanked Clover Leaf, a unit of Bumble Bee, in its recent seafood rankings. Chris says that’s partly because Clover Leaf didn’t respond to a Greenpeace questionnaire.

His bigger concern is that tuna fishery regulation is ineffective. Partly that’s because tuna are tough to regulate: They never stop moving, they are widely but sparsely distributed around the world and they can travel thousands of miles, onto the high seas, beyond the reach of any nation. Tuna fishing is regulated by regional fisheries management organizations, or RFMOs, made up of many countries (19 in one central Pacific group), some of which control fishing grounds, others that own the boats. Policing the high seas is a big challenge, Chris told me. “There’s absolutely nothing that stops new boats from coming in,” he said.

As a result, with no effective catch limits and major improvements in fishing technology, the numbers of tuna being drawn from the sea has skyrocketed in recent decades. An ISSF report on the status of the world fisheries for tuna says:

Between 1940 and the mid-1960s, the annual world catch of the four principal species of tunas that are processed for the stable shelf-life market (skipjack, yellowfin, bigeye and albacore) rose from about 300,000 tonnes1 to about 1 million tonnes, most of it taken by hook and line. With the development of purse-seine nets, now the predominant gear, catches have risen to more than 4.3 million tonnes annually during the last few years.

The Marvelettes were perhaps right, way back in 1964, that there were  Too Many Fish in the Sea. No more.

The ISSF, according to Chris, would like to get the world’s countries to agree to “control and limit the number of vessels” fishing for tuna.  Its member companies process about 70% of global tuna production, so they have clout. Retailers, for example, could be encourage to buy only from ISSF companies; Walmart Canada has already agreed to do so. If it works, this will be an example of big companies doing what government cannot.

Chris Lischewski, with a 38 lb king salmon that didn't end up in a can

I asked Chris how Bumble Bee will grow its revenues and profits if tuna catch is going to be limited.  He said there’s a possibility of expanding the supply of fish through aquaculture, and that Bumble Bee can acquire more of the tuna supply if it can persuade its customers to pay more for canned tuna.

“My big challenge is that Americans think tuna is cheap protein,” he said. Ten five-ounce cans of Bumble Bee chunk light sell for $15.45 at Amazon, less in some supermarkets. “It’s too cheap,” he said.

To persuade shoppers to pay more, the tuna industry has launched an ad campaign called Tuna the Wonderfish that touts the health benefits of tuna (lots of Omega 3’s) and offers free recipes for tuna burgers and tuna fajitas. Here’s one of their clever TV ads:

These ads  focus on tuna’s benefits, not its price. It’s all but certain that customers will have to pay more for tuna in the future–demand will continue to grow, driven by health and wellness concerns, and supplies will be limited, if Lischewski and the other processors get their way.

If they don’t, supplies could one day become very limited, and that would be a tragedy.


  1. Carl Raichle says

    Mr Lischewski should read some of the consumer comments regarding his canned tuna. It has become shredded inedible slop floating in a can full of water.
    He should be forced to eat some of his Chunk light Tuna – fat chance!

  2. says

    Bumble Bee quit buying American west coast Albacore Tuna 20 years ago. Started buying tuna from Unicord (Thailand) & left US fishermen high & dry years ago. Don’t get stung by the Bumble Bee! No no No!

  3. George Blender says

    It is even worse now than it ever was. Albacore tuna are the choice tuna. The young Albacore from the West Coast of the US is the prime source of these choice fish. The rest is cat food from all the suppliers listed above. There are a few producers, such as Wild Planet, left and they have produced quality in the past. Now, they too are getting their product from other countries and that brings their products down to the same quality as the rest of the junk on the self. Do yourself a favor, check on-line for sources close to grounds where the best Albacore are caught and processed. Buy from the source. It will cost more but it is worth it. If you do, you will never again buy those shelf brands, no matter whose it is.

  4. carolae says

    I picked up a can of Bumble Bee Solid White Albacore tuna in water yesterday and was shocked when I opened it up. It was NOT chunky white pieces of tuna BUT something that looked as though it went thru a blender. I re-read the label again to make sure I had picked up the right can and I did. Against my better judgment, I made a sandwich and paid for it in the morning as I had a very upset stomach. I have purchased solid white Albacore tuna before but it was not from Bumble Bee and was 100% better. I think the company needs to either rename what is in that can for “solid” or else take it off of the shelves.

  5. janis says

    I just did the same thing as you.
    I really felt cheated.
    I am 61 & Tunafish has been a part of my diet for 60 of them.
    We tried the best Tunas and they are all pretty mushy & highly salted.
    I wash my Tuna. By the time I get out the water,
    it’s not very pretty!
    Have you noticed you no longer have to break it up?
    No,I do not mind paying more,but is there even a good TUNA out there?

    • Josh says

      Dear Janis, Carolea and otherwise
      I strongly suggest you don’t judge fish out of a can because of course it’s crap, if you want good fish such as tuna you should become a sushi fan, find a good sushi place and you will fall in love with fish all over again

  6. Eileen says

    I just purchased a can of Bumble Bee Chunk White Albacore Tuna. When I opened it, I was shocked. It was not white and it looked disgusting. If I had a cat I probably would be afraid to give it to him/her. Similar to the comments from Carolae & Janis, it looked mushy and as if it was put through a blender for a few seconds. I actually took it back to my local grocery store and got my money back. Like Janis, I have been eating tuna for 60 years and I will never buy Bumble Bee tuna again. I ended up buying the StarKist Solid White Albacore Select and it was good. Yes, it is a little more expensive but worth it.

  7. Donna L Christiansen says

    I have been buying BBtuna for over 50 yrs. Recently I purchased your BB chunck White Albacore & it was nothing but mush. That was the 1st time I ever had a
    complaint about your product. Hopefully I will not have this problem again. Otherwise I will have to buy another brand.

    Yours Truly,
    Donna Lee Christiansen

  8. Carol says

    I purchase Albacore all the time. I have never liked the smell or appearance of regular tuna. I have always received what I paid for, “Chunk white albacore in water” as labeled. Recently I purchased 6 cans of BumbleBee Chunk White Albacore dated Oct. 10, 2015 because it was on sale. This was the most disgusting “tuna?” I have ever seen come out of a can. I went to squeeze the water out of the can but instead got what felt like an oily substance that squirted out the side onto my shirt while some greyish/brownish mush oozed from the edges. Whatever it’s packed in did not “separate” from the contents. When I took the lid off 4 of the cans I opened, the contents looked like a discolored pile of oily looking mush. It definitely was not “Chunk White Albacore”. There was not one chunk of anything and it definitely was not white. Regular tuna would have been more appealing than whatever it is in these cans. I called BumbleBee with a complaint 1-858-715-4000. They are to send me coupons to replace the cans. Really? No thank you. Keep them. Anyone else having problems with BumbleBee, please file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. Bumble Bee is mislabeling their product and selling uneatable albacore. This needs to stop! By the way, I normally buy Kirkland Signature Brand Albacore from Costco which is exactly as it’s labeled, “Chunk White Albacore in water”. A bit more expensive but at least you get what you are paying for and it’s eatable!

  9. Barbara McGeever says

    Bumble Bee tuna is inferior to any other white albacore tuna I’ve purchased. The consistency is mushy, and more importantly, the last two cans I’ve opened have contained sharp bones – similar to mini daggers. They’ve lost a customer here. The best tuna canned on the shelves today is the Price Chopper brand – solid, white albacore in water.

  10. Disgusted Customer says

    So this is the guy responsible for the mushy disgusting tuna I just had the misfortune to get a mouthful of. Thanks for the afternoon of nausea Chris Lischewski, thanks so much. And now Mr. Lischewski tells us we are going to have to pay more for the privilege of choking on this substandard, rotten filth that our grandparents would have put someone in jail for? Not happening. My turning stomach hopes that Bumblebee fails so that it cannot do this to anyone else. Will NEVER buy this brand again.

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