Sustainable Sushi, Unicorns and Other Myths

Sushi is good and good for you. I mean, Glamour and Men’s Health and LiveStrong all say so. Lots of grocery stores seem to think so; you can pick up a bento in the deli sections at Lunds, Byerly’s, and even most Twin Cities co-ops. Sushi: Lite! Easy! Fun!

It’s fashionable to be all eco-minded about your sushi these days, too. Restaurants in Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland are popping up across the nation to sell what they call “sustainable sushi.” There’s even a book and a website!

Is sushi really sustainable? I’m not buying it. I’ve written before about how our oceans are increasingly overfished. Many of the sea creatures you’d like to find atop your nigiri are in big trouble—none less so than the iconic toro, or bluefin tuna. Last February, World Fishing Today reported that bluefin is predicted to be extinct in two years. This was two months before Japan defeated a trade ban on the fish, and almost three months before the April 20 BP oil spill spelled bluefin’s doom. This fish has been served its death warrant.  

Bottom line, is sushi an environmentally friendly choice for Minnesotans? If you want to be black and white about it, the answer is “no.” Are people going to eat it anyway? Undoubtedly. Can we at least do a little better at it than eating endangered fish? Of course.

Go veg. Semantic nitpickery: Sushi is a concept, not a fish. The word by itself may not even mean what we Americans think it means. My friend Kazuko, who hails from Nagasaki, told me that “sushi” means rice and that nigiri can be topped with anything, not just a slice of sashimi. “Could be a leaf… could be dirt,” she philosophized. (I’d advocate for something tastier than dirt.)

There are plenty of ways to make vegetarian sushi and plenty of vegetables from which to choose. Try avocado in the California roll. Or edamame, egg, and nori in the chirashizushi. Or nigiri with a strip of roasted pepper, or sautéed eggplant, or a row of green beans stir-fried with too much garlic. Now I’m making myself hungry.

Save it for a special day. I’m not saying “don’t eat it.” But what’s wrong with eating less of things? If inlanders thought of ocean fish as a rare treat, there would be a little less strain on world fisheries. Fewer resources would be spent on same-day shipping, too. Let’s be realistic: getting sushi to a Minnesota table is not light ‘n’ easy ‘n’ fun. Why not treat it with some gravity?

Stay smart. It is difficult to impossible to trace the origin of the fish at most sushi bars. And it’s tough to stay current on what fish is a better or worse choice. Even Casson Trenor, author of Sustainable Sushi, concedes as much to Hannah Wallace of The Faster Times:

"I am one of the select few people on the planet who has the blessing of talking about fish ten hours a day, six days a week. And I get lost. So if your job is something else, how can you possibly keep up with everything?"

About all you can do is check an up-to-date source. One of the best is Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. There you’ll find a downloadable pocket guide that is always being updated. Or you can add to the Favorites on your smartphone. The latest information on what’s the best choice will always be at your fingertips.

Don’t get me wrong – I like the taste of sashimi as much as the next person. But if oceans continue to decline at the current rate, then the day will come in my lifetime when it won’t be around anymore. I wish we could stop it from happening. Maybe the best anyone can do is make that day come a little later.

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Amy Boland is a Twin Cities writer and food enthusiast. You can read more of her food musings on her blog Cook 'Em if You Got 'Em.