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Fish on Fridays: 10 Tips on Sustainable Sushi

SOURCE: AP/Lenny Ignelzi

The Tabu Sushi Bar and Grill in El Cajon, California, is shown. As with shopping for fish at the grocery, some choices at the sushi bar are better than others for the envrionment.

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Irasshaimase!

Those in the sushi cognoscenti already know that the only appropriate way to open a column about the now-ubiquitous Japanese cuisine is with the equally ubiquitous greeting shouted by restaurant employees to customers as they enter. Literally translated, it means “come in” or “welcome.” So welcome to a Fish on Fridays take on sushi.

The term “sushi” actually refers to the deftly seasoned pillows of rice that support the main attraction at any sushi bar—the fish. Think of it like “Seinfeld” with eponymous Jerry serving as the solid base, while the real flavor and variety is supplied by George, Elaine, Kramer, Newman, Crazy Joe Davola, Jackie Chiles, Uncle Leo, and the rest of the transient cast of characters such as Jerry’s rhyme-time ex-girlfriend, Dolores.

But how sustainable is your sushi? In many cases there are nuances, so take the descriptions below with a big grain of salt (or dollop of wasabi). We’ve based these assessments on the most common traits of the most frequently used fish in each category. For more in-depth info on specific species, the best resource I have found is Casson Trenor’s book Sustainable Sushi. And as always, remember that the simplest rule is always: Buy American.

Now, here are our 10 tickets to a spectacular, sustainable sushi experience.

#1. The bluefin blues

No sustainable sushi article can be complete without mentioning the dangerously delicious bluefin tuna. Bluefin is an internationally managed species that’s drastically overfished, and it’s spawned a global black market to the point that according to a new report from the Pew Environment Group in 2010, the amount traded was 141 percent above the international quota.

Prince Albert of Monaco has gone so far as to suggest its status is akin to that of the white rhino. Such comparisons are certainly an overreach, but given bluefin’s critical status, global demand for the species must decrease. This means unless you can directly track the fish with complete certainty to a sustainable, domestic source such as the northeast harpoon fishery, you should steer clear. And given that restaurant fish is notoriously difficult to verify, that probably means you should keep toro off your sushi bar orders.

#2. The rest of the (tuna) story

Aside from bluefin, other tunas (maguro) are the workhorse of the U.S. sushi trade. Sashimi, nigiri, or spicy, they’re the most popular fish to come across the counter, which is a bit ironic. That’s because according to Trevor Corson’s history of the cuisine, The Story of Sushi, sushi connoisseurs in Japan typically found tuna to be too heavy a fish for sushi and preferred lighter fare. The most typical species served as maguro is yellowfin tuna. Overall, yellowfin have a pretty good sustainability pedigree, though pole- or troll-caught are considered best if you can find them.

Albacore is perhaps the most sustainable tuna you’ll find at the sushi bar, though it’s almost always served seared because the flesh isn’t firm enough to hold up raw. While not highly regarded among aficionados, it’s still quite tasty and a great choice from a sustainability perspective.

#3. Salmon vs. salmon

There are really only two types of salmon (sake) in the world: wild and farmed. Given the way each tastes, they might as well be different animals altogether. If you can find wild Alaska salmon on a sushi menu, order it. It will make you happy.

Farmed salmon, frankly, pales in comparison, literally and figuratively. Its trademark coloration typically comes from a feed supplement and fails to attain the deep, rich hue of its wild cousins. Further, internationally sourced salmon in particular may include other additives and antibiotics. There are a few U.S. salmon aquaculture facilities and they operate under more strict environmental and health regulations. But when the fish hits the rice, it doesn’t wear a flag. Unless you can verify the source, probably best to steer clear.

#4: Ditch the chopsticks

You don’t need them for sushi or rolls. Traditionally, sushi is eaten with the fingers. So save a few trees and leave the chopsticks in the package. According to Corson, Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture estimates that its country tosses out approximately 25 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks per year.

But if you do choose to wrestle with chopsticks, don’t do that thing where you try to remove any loose bits by rubbing them together like a boy scout trying to start a fire. It’s perceived as an insult to the chef.

#5: Hamachi in moderation

I’ve really grown to love yellowtail (hamachi). It’s a kind of amberjack, most often farmed in Japan. It comes with the typical caveats about open water aquaculture—including that it can lead to increased pollution from fish waste and runoff of excess feed, that fishmeal and fish oil are an inefficient use of wild protein sources, and that escapes of farmed fish can spread disease or deplete the gene pools of wild fish. I was pleased to note, however, that the Blue Ocean Institute, a conservation group headed by author Carl Safina, finds U.S. yellowtail farms typically operate in deeper water with strong currents “promoting the dispersal of waste,” and they are fed a diet “containing moderate levels of fish meal and oil.”

These factors make yellowtail at least a decent choice.

#6: Smaller is better

One of the blanket recommendations for eating sustainable seafood is to eat smaller fish, lower on the food chain. Because these tend to be oilier fish, they often have more of that “fishy” taste that most Americans prefer to avoid. But mackerel (saba), prepared by a proper sushi chef, skirts this problem with an appropriate salt and vinegar marinade that breaks down the amino acids leading to fishiness (again, see Corson’s book for more details). The result is a delicious if slightly more pungent flavor loaded with omega-3s that are as healthy for you as this fish’s consumption is for the oceans.

#7: 86 the unagi

Unagi, or freshwater eel, is typically served cooked, usually baked, and enhanced with sweet ponzu sauce. Because of this, it’s often considered “novice” sushi, just a step above the California roll, and perhaps on par with spicy tuna. Virtually all freshwater eels served in the United States are farmed and imported.

Blue Ocean Institute takes a narrow view on eel aquaculture, and I’ll let its assessment speak for itself:

The vast majority of Freshwater Eel is farmed in net pens and ponds where waste is not treated before being released into nearby bodies of water…. Freshwater Eels sometimes escape and can transfer diseases to wild populations. In addition, [they] require a high protein diet… consisting mostly of fish meal and fish oil. Freshwater Eel that are farmed are not raised from birth: the farmers catch juveniles (also called glass Eels) and then raise them in nets and pens. This contributes to the decline in wild populations.

There’s really not a lot good to say here. Skip the eel.

8. The scoop on scallops

Sea scallops (hotate) are one of the best fishery management success stories.

The American scallop fleet experienced boom years in the late 1980s and early 90s, but under-regulation and overharvest led to a near collapse of the fishery by 1993, with landings plummeting from an average of 15,200 metric tons from 1987 to 1992 to just 7,000 metric tons from 1993 to 1998.

Realizing the problem, regulators, fishermen, and scientists devised what amounts to a system of crop rotation, where scalloping grounds are divided into three groups of geographically diverse areas. Each group is then opened for one year out of every three. By year four, fishermen go back to the first area that has been untouched for three years and is thus bristling with legal-size scallops.

Landings over the past five years have averaged 26,000 metric tons, and what is now the highest-value fishery in the country shows no signs of slowing down.

Bottom line: Eat more scallops!

9. Find what’s local

This is a bit of a cheat, since it applies to all fisheries and in fact all food. Eating local reduces the environmental impact of your meal simply because it doesn’t need to be delivered to you from afar.

Locality also means freshness, a premium for seafood. Some of the best sushi I ever ate was on a cold December afternoon in Portland, Maine. I sat at the bar and ate piece after piece of Maine shrimp nigiri: a small bundle of pandalus borealis tucked into a collar of crisp nori and laid on rice. These are small shrimp, typically no bigger than an inch long, but the complexity of flavor they extract from the Gulf of Maine is nothing short of spectacular.

Every coastal region has its version of this. Ask your chef for tips. Or better yet, see the final point on our list.

10. Omakase

Last but not least, provided you trust the sushi chef to adhere to the sustainability guidelines outlined above, your best bet when you take a seat at the sushi bar and the chef looks your way is to say “omakase,” which simply means, “your choice.” He’ll hook you up.

Michael Conathan is Director of Ocean Policy at American Progress. Thanks to CAP Energy intern Emma Huvos for her contributions to this piece.

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This is part of a regular column: Fish on Fridays

For more from the same column, click here