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It’s Easy Being Green: Sustainable Sushi Swims into the Mainstream

SOURCE: Flickr/usedtobelost

The "clear conscience set" of sushi at a Moshi Moshi restaurant in Brighton, England. It features a combo platter composed of sustainable and locally produced ingredients.

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Some researchers are warning that if we don’t change the way we harvest the oceans, all the commercial fisheries in the world could collapse as early as 2048. For sushi lovers, that could mean the end of stylish sushi bars and California rolls at the local supermarket. The question for proprietors and patrons alike is how to satisfy the taste for sushi without putting pressure on fisheries and the environment.

U.S. seafood chefs have started paying more attention to sustainability, but their sushi chef counterparts have been slow to catch on to the fishing industry’s effect on ocean ecosystems and the environment. The global trade in seafood depends on damaging farming and fishing methods and a carbon-intensive shipping system.

Sushi restaurants in the United States have diverged from traditional Japanese restaurants by offering simplistic menus that feature endangered species such as the bluefin tuna and rarely any local and seasonal ingredients or fish. Japanese bars, on the other hand, employ a more personal touch; patrons sit around the counter and order directly through the chef, who suggests dishes to them based on seasonal and local delicacies.

But several emerging trends point to a current of change in the sushi business, not just in the United States, but worldwide. First, scientists are looking at ways to fish more sustainably. One of their ideas is to use “catch shares” that guarantee individual fisherman or cooperatives a prearranged share of the total catch for a particular fish. A study published in Science last year concluded that these catch shares could halt fishery collapses and even reverse the trend over time.

Sushi chefs and restaurant owners are also realizing they need to act. One of these restaurants is the Tataki Sushi and Saki Bar in San Francisco that opened last year. Its goal is to serve no seafood that hasn’t been rated as completely sustainable by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s well-known Seafood Watch program. The restaurant also hired a “sustainability guru” who serves as a fisheries analyst.

But making a sushi restaurant sustainable isn’t easy, even with a consultant on board. Casson Trenor, the guru at Tataki, has said that going that extra mile for sustainability means, “no unagi [eel], no hamachi [farmed Japanese yellowtail], no farmed salmon, no longlined fish, no bottom-trawled fish—nothing that leaves any scars on the face of the deep.” This list also includes ranched bluefin tuna, a popular choice at sushi bars. The tuna are frequently labeled as “farmed” but are usually just caught from the wild when they’re young and fattened in ranching pens, a practice that puts even more pressure on wild populations.

Another restaurant looking to change the sushi business is Moshi Moshi, a chain in the United Kingdom. The restaurant’s menus feature a “clear conscience set” that includes a combo platter composed of sustainable and locally produced ingredients. The managing director, Caroline Bennett, decided to stop placing orders through the international distribution system and in 2004 found a dayboat fisherman in nearby Cornwall who could supply her on a more or less daily basis with local fish that weren’t endangered or industrially produced.

Finally, several organizations are finding ways to educate consumers on how to make better decisions at the sushi counter. Three conservation groups—California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Blue Ocean Institute, and the Environmental Defense Fund—each produce annual pocket guides listing which fish are the most sustainable to buy. The groups base their ratings on the health of a wild fish’s population, along with the impacts of fish-farming operations and fishing practices.

Forward-thinking restaurant owners and chefs outside of the sushi world are also creating menus with sustainable seafood in mind. And, it’s now even easier for consumers to know which fish to pick to support best practices and prevent endangerment. These small signs may not yet amount to a sea change in behavior. But when combined with careful fisheries management, they could help to ensure that generations from now, sushi bars still exist.

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