Friday, November 13, 2009

Sustainable Sushi?

I’m flying the friendly skies as I prepare this latest entry for you all, and I am motivated by a feature I have just read in the magazine in the seat pocket in front of me. It is a piece about sustainable sushi by Jane Black (Hemispheres Magazine, October 2009).

These types of articles usually draw my attention for several reasons. However, it is not because I am a marine scientist and want to read about the ocean all the time (that could not be farther from the truth). Mostly, I am curious to see what sort of angle they will take. Usually they are fatalistic. The world is going to hell in a hand-basket, oh my. And, thusly I am drawn to them as a scientist much like spectators to a train wreck. I just cannot look away. At this point I must note that I, for one, do not think the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. While I do think we humans have created some real serious problems, I don’t agree with the twisted, sensationalist, non-scientifically based claims that say, for example, the entire ocean will have run out of fish in a decade. This article has the familiar undertones, but is remarkably optimistic, so I read on.

So, the points made by this particular article include that bluefin tuna populations are in bad trouble. Yep, that one is irrefutable and completely true. And, farmed salmon is bad for the environment. Yep, also true. They make the point that only certain types of fish should be avoided. I could not agree more. There is a trend now among hip sushi restaurants in places like New York and San Francisco to offer alternatives. Chefs are creating tasty new versions of sushi from fish that are sustainably harvested and these are as delicious as the traditional toro and unagi.

That these particular fish should be avoided, however, has been known by scientists and management agencies for a rather long time. Why has it taken so long for this to get the public’s attention? Especially when people are already becoming quite used to reading labels and looking for clues that the food you are buying is healthy and safe. It was suggested that people see the beautiful pieces of sushi on the plate and don’t connect them to the real world out there. They don’t realize that they are fish, part of the natural world and part of an interconnected web that sustains the planet. I suppose that could be part of it. But, I doubt it. Sushi is unmistakably fish. At least it is to me. Occupational hazard? Very likely.

I suggest that the reason people are not vigilant about their sushi in a way that they might be vigilant about the other things they buy and ingest is because of the culture of sushi itself. Sushi is an art as mush as it is a meal. Sushi celebrates the ocean. And, it is, generally speaking, among the healthiest meals you can find. Patrons step into this world and worrying about labels is a worry left behind. It is replaced, instead, by a sense of trust. How can something that celebrates so much goodness possibly be bad?

I’ve written about this type of security before. Many grocery store chains bearing healthy names and healthy slogans also pack their isles, and frozen fish cases, with environmentally unfriendly products. Some of these are also downright unhealthy. Some farmed fishes, for example, are fed artificial diets and pack the wrong kind of omega fatty acids, and therefore can do more harm than good to your cholesterol levels.

In terms of what you should or should not eat, it is really a case-by-case basis. If you are not carrying a Seafood Watch card, download one, or stop by the Monterey Bay Aquarium to get yours for free. It is among the handiest little tools out there. There is also a free app if you have an iPhone or similar device (just a little plug to keep my Apple stock on the rise).

Wild-caught Alaskan salmon, for example, is considered a pretty good choice. If you can find out what your favorite sushi chef is serving, you stand a pretty good chance of enjoying a meal of sushi that is good for you, and for the environment.

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