UPDATE: How San Diego Magazine Handles Errors

UPDATE: 08.25.17

  • Despite the fact that the reporter responsible for the story originally told us unequivocally that he would not be issuing a correction of any kind, the newly-edited story now begins with this sentence: “Update and Correction: The post has been updated to reflect that Federal law mandates that no bycatch (dolphins, turtles, and sharks) makes it into canned tuna from US companies.” That, along with various copy edits throughout the text illustrates the commitment to accuracy shown by San Deigo Magazine’s Editor-in -Chief Erin Meanley Glenny. At the same time this cautionary tale stands as an example to journalists reporting on seafood; it’s easier to do your research before you publish.

ORIGINAL: 08.24.17

San Diego Magazine ran a highly flawed piece on sustainability and tuna industry practices [Yes We Canned. Catalina Offshore gets into the growing local, sustainable canned tuna game by Troy Johnson, 8/17] that from its headline onward is full of bias and errors. You see, the original headline was the hyperbolic “Canned Tuna Sucks!” Among its many misleading claims, the worst was the absurd suggestion that major American tuna brands are canning things like turtle along with tuna. They are not.

Contacting the editor-in-chief

We contacted the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Erin Meanley Glenny, asking for corrections to this and other errors of omission, in the letter found below this post.

And even though we plainly explained Johnson’s basic misunderstanding of the concept of bycatch, and linked to substantiation on matters of empirical fact, Glenny failed to address the substance. Instead, she forwarded the letter to the offending author, tasking him with a response.

Unproductive email exchanges

But in a series of increasingly unproductive email exchanges with Johnson, he repeatedly refused to correct his mistakes, and instead suggested we participate in a “conference call” to debate three “sustainability experts,” whom Johnson assured us backed up the faulty assertions in his story.

While we welcome open, honest dialogue with other stakeholders in the seafood sustainability conversation, and were initially open to talking with Johnson’s sources as part of the process of correcting the magazine story, it quickly became apparent from interacting with him that his suggestion was a simple deflection.

Johnson cannot really believe that an offer to “debate” three mystery sources—without any knowledge of their credentials, biases, or even identities—is a sufficient response to a story that misled readers.

Actual Experts

Similarly, there already is a dedicated, robust, and transparent public forum for Johnson’s mystery “experts” to debate tuna sustainability with scientists, fishery managers, and other stakeholders. It’s called the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF). A group Johnson never contacted before he wrote his story. If Johnson is relying on Greenpeace expertise, as the many links to Greenpeace publications in his piece suggest, we won’t hold our breath. As we made clear in the letter, Greenpeace has refused invitations to participate in that forum for years.

Distortions Remain

After all this, the distortions in the story remain.

First, the scientifically baseless claim that canned tuna contains turtle. We provided Johnson with independent, peer-reviewed research and data on bycatch, both to help him correct his misunderstanding of the dictionary definition of the term, and to illustrate that the reality in these fisheries is different from the alarmist picture he paints. Bycatch is simply not canned with tuna, and the FDA imposes rigorous identity standards on everything canned, processed, and sold. Bycatch does not ever enter the processing supply chain.

Second, the fishing methods Johnson seems to dislike have been found by independent, peer-reviewed scientific studies to have bycatch rates similar to, or less than, the methods he seems to prefer. Moreover, the pole and line method has recently been found by a landmark University of California study to be three to four times more carbon intensive than the modern fishing methods he appears to oppose. Despite being confronted with these facts, Johnson has decided to keep them from his readers.

Third, 76 percent of all tuna comes from stocks considered healthy. In fact “renowned tuna fisheries scientist” Alain Fonteneau of the French Research Institute for Development (IRP) recently declared global tuna stocks “very robust” and “very difficult to heavily overfish,” concluding that none of the world’s 21 major tuna stocks have shown signs of critical collapse.

Correct the Record

None of these facts are going to become any less true, no matter how many folks Johnson patches into the conference line. It would appear that it’s up to his editors at this point as to whether they want to correct the record.

The Letter to Erin Meanley Glenny

August 18, 2017

Dear Mrs. Meanley Glenny,

In the course of what appears to be an advertisement for a local canned tuna producer [“Canned Tuna Sucks! But Catalina Offshore’s new local, sustainable tuna doesn’t,” 8/17], gameshow judge Troy Johnson repeats a number of baseless and misleading claims made by Greenpeace activists. Worst of all, he seems to completely misunderstand the concept of bycatch, drawing conclusions regarding American canned tuna that are wholly without basis in fact. They demand immediate correction.

Specifically, Johnson garishly claims in several places that canned tuna from major U.S. brands contains shark, turtle, and other marine animals. That’s either a malicious and actionable untruth, or the result of a profound ignorance of the concept of bycatch—which refers to fish other than the targeted species caught, not processed and canned. In either case, you’re obliged to correct the record for your readers.

Nor is Johnson on much firmer ground in relying on Greenpeace’s unscientific “rankings” of major US canned tuna producers as the basis for his criticism. Those rankings are largely ignored by the press, retailers, and consumers alike, as they are based on an ever-shifting set of opaque criteria designed by an organization that refuses to reveal its methodology.

In fact, Greenpeace is a uniquely poor source for sound information on sustainable tuna fishing, including bycatch. The fishing methods they oppose have been found by peer-reviewed scientific studies to have bycatch rates similar to, or less than, the methods they prefer. What’s more,  a landmark University of California study just concluded that the pole and line methods Greenpeace and Johnson advocate for are actually extremely carbon intensive, and consume approximately three to four times more fuel than boats using more efficient, modern methods. The author is thus recommending fishing practices that encourage pollution, to avoid a problem that doesn’t exist, having to do with a phenomenon he doesn’t seem to understand.

What your readers should know is that top ocean sustainability experts agree that global tuna stocks are far healthier than suggested in your pages. Indeed, while groups like Greenpeace have been busy pushing disinformation, the tuna industry has worked proactively with scientific organizations like the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) to ensure that efforts to meet global tuna demand are environmentally responsible. Greenpeace has refused to sit down with ISSF as part of this ongoing dialogue, despite an open invitation to do so that stretches back years.

This lack of critical context in and of itself suggests the story is in need of correction and amendment. But, again, the much more fundamental error at the center of the author’s understanding of bycatch is simply too egregious to let stand.

We await your speedy action and thank you.


Brandon Phillips
Sr. Director Communications & Advocacy
National Fisheries Institute