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The Fish Less Eaten

Our growing love for sushi spells doom for popular selections like bluefin tuna. A new movement preaching tasty alternatives might save them from oblivion-but will the customer bite?

Author Jane Black Illustration Rodrigo Corral

MY DATE TONIGHT, Trevor Corson, arrives early at Washington, D.C.’s Sushiko to have a little talk with the chef. There will be a few rules for our dinner. Specifically, no eel. No salmon. And definitely no tuna.

The chef is puzzled. Those are the Big Three. Tuna, salmon and eel are the most popular items at every sushi bar. But then, Corson isn’t your average diner. He’s a sushi concierge, a personal valet for aficionados who want an authentic sushi experience, and I’ve asked him to help me navigate the waters of what’s known as sustainable sushi.

Historically, the tradition of sushi has shown great respect for the ocean, Corson explains, as I sample a bit of orange clam dusted with truffle salt. But now the silky bluefin tuna we prize has been fished almost to extinction. And the salmon and eel in restaurants, delis and grocery stores generally come from farms that environmentalists charge breed disease and damage the oceans. Corson is careful not to preach—he still recommends the Big Three to some clients—but his message is clear: To be an authentic sushi consumer, you need to be a responsible one.

It is well reported that the oceans, once considered inexhaustible, are now in a global state of crisis. Half of all fish stocks monitored by the U.N. are already fully exploited, according to the Marine Stewardship Council. More crucially, when it comes to our presentday sushi craving, the World Wildlife Fund warns that if fishing practices don’t change, the Atlantic bluefin tuna faces extinction by 2012.

And the only way to change fishing practices is to rethink the way we eat fish, especially sushi. In other words: Say sayonara to your toro nigiri.

Here’s the good news: Sustainable alternatives to the Big Three are getting easier to find—and tastier. At Moshi Moshi, a chain of sushi bars in London, diners can opt for eco-dishes like seabass sashimi and prawn nigiri. At San Francisco’s Tataki Sushi & Sake Bar, patrons stand in line for as long as two hours for the restaurant’s famous “faux-nagi,” sablefish seared and brushed with a sweet, sultry sauce that mimics the taste of the ever-popular (but unsustainable) unagi, or eel. In Portland, Oregon, Bamboo Sushi serves fish with a Marine Stewardship Council stamp of approval. The council okays sea creatures including haddock, halibut, hake and herring (and that’s just the H’s).

Sustainable sushi should be an obvious next step for eco-conscious consumers who regularly shop at farmers markets and scour restaurant menus for words like “line-caught,” “heirloom” and “heritage breed.”

However, says Corson, “somehow when people eat sushi, the rules don’t apply.”

Tataki cofounder Casson Trenor has a theory about why sushi gets an environmental pass: Those glistening jewel-colored rectangles just don’t look like fish. “There’s a disconnect there. No one knows where sushi comes from,” Trenor says. “And if you don’t know that, how can you make good decisions about sustainability?”

In January, Trenor—who helped the Monterey Bay Aquarium develop wallet cards that consumers can consult before ordering—published a book, Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time. A year earlier, he had opened Tataki as an experiment designed to prove that sustainable sushi was both possible and profitable.

Nothing on the menu at Tataki is environmentally harmful. Instead of farmed salmon, there’s arctic char. Instead of yellowtail, there’s amberjack. Trenor even banned farmed tuna, since most are adults plucked from the ocean, where they might otherwise mate.

Farming actually increases pressure on wild fish stocks.

Most customers support the change, says Bamboo’s head chef, Brandon Hill, but not all. When he recently explained to one diner why he was no longer serving tuna, she was dismissive. “She said it was their own fault for tasting so good,” Hill says.

Some call sustainable sushi a fad. Hill disagrees. “Something has to be done, or I’m going to be out of work in fifteen years.”

Sustainable sushi evangelists are spreading the word. Last month, Trenor helped chef Hajime Sato remake the menu at his 15-year-old Seattle restaurant, Mashiko. Caroline Bennett, founder of London’s Moshi Moshi and Soseki restaurants, formed Pisces Responsible Fish Restaurants, a nonprofit that helped devise an ad campaign with celebs like Greta Scacchi and director Terry Gilliam posing naked to raise awareness about the plight of the bluefin (more power to them, right?). Sting, Charlize Theron and Sienna Miller have publicly boycotted glitzy Japanese restaurant Nobu, which continues to serve bluefin tuna. (To its credit, Nobu has a warning on its menu: “Bluefin tuna is an environmentally threatened species. Please ask your server for an alternative.”)

Many sushi chefs remain skeptical. Some view themselves as artists and, naturally, don’t want to give up the ruby-colored canvas of bluefin tuna. Others claim they’re merely giving the customers what they want.

Tasty though the Big Three may be, they aren’t irreplaceable. Back at Sushiko, Corson and I take up a set of chopsticks and attack a roll of creamy spot prawns topped with shiso leaf and perfectly poached lobster. Afterward, we plow through briny sea urchin. By now, I’ve forgotten all about bluefin tuna. Come to think of it, this menu seems eminently sustainable.

Despite her love of the sea, Washington Post staff writer and sushi fanatic JANE BLACK will dearly miss toro nigiri.

CHANGE YOUR TUNA

Since 1970, stocks of bluefin have dwindled to catastrophic levels.

No Responses to “The Fish Less Eaten”

  1. Shay Says:
    November 20th, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    While it’s great to hear about fish options that are up and coming (I’d love to have gotten more menu selections) I feel like you should have taken the space to mention that sushi has an equally strong tradition of vegetable, spice, meat or other options. In fact, I wish your “sushi concierge” had encouraged you to teach readers the truth, that “sushi” only refers to the rice preparation, and that great Japanese sushi can leave out the fish entirely. Having authentic food may often be more green than finding a trick in a substitution. As you said, “historically, the tradition of sushi has show great respect for the ocean.” People should then show sushi some respect.

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