Sushi sustainability and other alliterative quagmires

A Giant Sea Bass swims at the California Academy of Sciences in SF. The species, which can weigh hundreds of pounds, has been protected since the 80s. But decades of overfishing keep the population at the endangered level. photo by Vivien Kim Thorp

Writing about fish makes me hungry. Like, ‘pass the shoyu and get out of my way’ hungry. But when you write about fish on an environmental blog, you’re supposed to caution against eating many of the tastier species, since they are experiencing population crashes as a result of our gustatory enthusiasm. It’s a dilemma. A depressing, delicious dilemma.

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, we are eating tuna out of existence. Not only that, but the way we catch it and many of its mouth-watering brethren damages the ocean. In some instances, we drop humungous nets that violently scrape the ocean floor and snag all kinds of collateral wildlife. In others, we reel out 60-mile lines rigged with thousands of barbs, again victimizing animals we have no intended commercial use for — dolphins and sea turtles, to name a couple of the cutest and most guilt-inspiring.

The February issue of the monthly magazine San Francisco describes these and other aquatic atrocities in a lengthy cover feature by Erik Vance entitled “The new school of fish.” In addition to problematic seafood harvesting practices, the piece delves into the problem diners encounter when staring down a menu and trying to make ethical choices. Is that black cod truly “reel-caught,” and is that salmon actually “wild” — or is the restaurant fudging the facts? As Vance reveals, sometimes even the restaurants don’t realize they’re being duped by their suppliers. As you can see, the picture gets about as murky as the wake of a two-thousand-pound trawler net ripping up a coral reef.

Of course, you don’t want to get paralyzed with information overload. I was a little annoyed to hear the word “complicated” employed ad nauseum in KQED’s recent discussion of the subject with Vance and other fish folk; the idea seeming to be that the scope and intricacy of the situation overwhelms our capacity to deal with it.

As was mentioned on the program, the Monterey Bay Aquarium does put out a pocket-sized pamphlet to help fish eaters make ecologically-sound choices at the sushi bar. And as Vance suggests, you still shouldn’t hesitate to ask your waiter the hard questions. Or, for those with real initiative, you can always make your own seafood out of vegetables:

Creator cannot confirm whether salted salmon and resulting roll were from sustainable sources. (Nijiya?) But said creator has not eaten tuna, Atlantic cod or Chilean sea bass in 5+ years because of concerns about the emptying of our oceans. Long live bell pepper fish. photo by Vivien Kim Thorp

Note 1: Picking up the debate on sushi sustainability is difficult not just as a consumer, but also from a Nikkei perspective. My personal philosophy, as well as Nichi Bei‘s mission, is to support institutions that promote Japanese culture. I therefore don’t want to tear down sushi restaurants, which have always been and will continue to be important to me. I don’t have much more to say on this right now, but I imagine that we as a community are going to be wrestling with this issue for a long time to come.

Note 2: Also in the recent issue of San Francisco (although more for the Kuishinbowl set) is this article on the new high-end yakitori joint Ippuku in Berkeley.

Comments

  1. Tomo Hirai says:

    Well, considering that sushi is presumed to be raw fish, we would think tuna is the most perennial and basic ingredient of sushi, but it doesn’t have to be.

    We really need to take the next step with sushi. Considering that sushi has become ubiquitous as spaghetti and burritos here in California, it may be high time to teach people that sushi isn’t just about raw fish.

    Traditional sushi, after all, was a preserved food. Fish were placed in jars to ferment with rice, and the resulting preserves were a messy smelly gunk that some might say is akin to surströmming. This was the most traditional type. Of course, no one, even the Japanese, really eat that anymore.

    However, there are other types of sushi that is not as seafood intensive. Inari sushi is vinegared rice wrapped in fried tofu, or there’s non-seafood sushi which is sushi rice mixed with seasonable vegetables, roots, eggs, and sometimes cooked seafood. These are great for bento boxes and their impact on oceans are far more kinder.

    I also eat plum and cucumber rolls, but that’s because I’m poor.

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