Knowledge is power
Do you know if you’re eating sustainably sourced sushi?
Like a lot of other Chicoans out there, I love sushi. I know I’m not alone because, let’s face it, we have more sushi restaurants than one might expect a small inland community like ours would be able to support. But they keep opening and we keep going.
I try to be conscious about the food I eat, particularly when it comes to meat. I buy local or organic beef and chicken. I never buy farmed fish—when I’m at a restaurant I ask before ordering salmon whether it is farmed or wild-caught. I’m not sure what it was about sushi, however, that somehow kept it off my radar. Maybe I was simply in denial.
I was sitting in a local sushi restaurant recently, noshing on my old standby, the sashimi lunch plate. The usual offerings: maguro, sake and hamachi. De-lish. As I took a break between bites, I let my eyes wander to the list on the wall of specials, among them red snapper. Having just watched End of the Line—the 2007 film about the effects of overfishing—I knew red snapper was on the no-no list. It got me thinking, What am I really eating here? I’m not sure I ever really bothered to ask.
When I got back to my desk, I Google’d “sustainable sushi.” What I found was a very cool website called, easy enough, SustainableSushi.net. I also got linked to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website. Both offer excellent, user-friendly interfaces for finding out more about popular sushi items (though if you want more in-depth information, check out the former). What I learned was troublesome at best.
Maguro, the fleshy red tuna so often served at sushi establishments, is on the “avoid” list. Unfortunately, so are hamachi and sake (salmon)! Maguro, it turns out, is yellowfin tuna. It’s caught on long fishing lines with thousands of hooks that, according to Seafood Watch, also end up hooking other marine animals like sea turtles and sharks. Hamachi is a little confusing, as the name is translated as yellowtail on most menus but actually is not yellowtail, according to SustainableSushi.net, a site created and maintained by San Franciscan Casson Trenor, who has led a mass effort to hold restaurants accountable for the fish they offer. Hamachi is actually amberjack; hiramasa is yellowtail amberjack (and a much better option).
“I know no one wants to hear it, but the hamachi that we all love so dearly is a cause for serious concern,” Trenor writes on his site. The vast majority of it is farmed, he explains, and little is known about wild hamachi. “Due to its dependence on wild juveniles, reliance on high-density systems, and continual demand for large quantities of fish for feed, this is an option that is best avoided.”
Then there’s the ever-popular sake, or salmon. As the CN&R reported back in 2010, salmon is wildly (pardon the pun) overfished and farming operations are sketchy at best. If it’s not wild-caught in Alaska, it’s best to avoid it, say Trenor as well as one of his employers, Greenpeace, which maintains the seafood “red list” of fish to avoid and a supermarket scorecard based on sustainable practices.
Beyond these big three, there are many other sushi options that are offered in Chico restaurants that, sustainably speaking, we would be best to avoid. Among them:
Tai, red snapper: On Greenpeace’s “red list,” which explains, “They are a slow growing species that mature late. Many are caught before they have had a chance to reproduce.” It goes on to say that “Mislabeling of red snapper for consumers is a big problem with this fish. Genetic studies have shown that many fish sold as red snapper in the U.S. are not actually red snapper, but other species.”
Tako, octopus: Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch lists octopus as a species to avoid because of overfishing and declining populations, adding that fishing gear used to catch them is destructive to ocean habitats.
Unagi, eel: “About ninety percent of the eel consumed in the United States is produced in farms, mainly in China, Taiwan, and Japan,” Trenor explains. “Unfortunately, eel aquaculture tends to be sloppy and has a number of serious problems.”
Do not fear—I know I’ve just loaded you with a lot of bad news. Rest assured, there are some good options out there:
Saba, mackerel: “In general, domestic saba is a much more sustainable choice than many other sushi options and can be enjoyed on a regular basis,” writes SustainableSushi’s Trenor. “It also has the benefit of low mercury levels—a good thing for women who are or will soon become pregnant.”
Shiromaguro, albacore tuna: When it’s domestically caught, it’s usually a good option, several sources say. “Northern Pacific albacore tuna populations are healthy and well-managed,” reads the Seafood Watch site. (Notice, however, that albacore remains on Greenpeace’s red list for international fishing methods.)
They say ignorance is bliss, and I can attest to that truth—for years I held onto the ignorance of what I was eating, relishing each bite of the delicious hamachi, the melt-in-your-mouth sake, the strange-textured maguro. And many others that I couldn’t even name because I never asked. But if ignorance is bliss, knowledge is power. And while that sashimi lunch plate I devoured a few weeks back might have been my last, I do look forward to trying other varieties of sushi that are likely just as tasty but don’t carry with them a hidden price tag.