Sustainable sushi

How to know if you’re eating the good stuff

I love sushi. I know I’m not alone, because, let’s face it, there are plenty of sushi restaurants out there. They keep opening—and we keep going.

I try to be conscious of food, 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 sushi restaurant recently, noshing on my old standby, the sashimi lunch plate. The usual offerings: maguro, sake and hamachi. 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.

I Googled “sustainable sushi” and what I found was a very cool website called, easy enough, Sustainable Sushi ( 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. 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 Sustainable Sushi, 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 SN&R has reported, salmon is wildly overfished and farming operations are sketchy at best. If it’s not wild-caught in Alaska, it’s best to avoid it, says 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, sustainably speaking, we would be best to avoid. Among them:

Tai, or red snapper. Greenpeace’s “red list” explains: “They are a slow growing species that mature late. Many are caught before they have had a chance to reproduce.”

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 90 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 good options: Saba, or mackerel; and Shiromaguro, or albacore tuna:

So, 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.