Sushi Wars

The question arises with more and more frequency these days: To sushi or not to sushi?

There is a growing contingent of conscientious mariners and travelers out there who refuse to eat all seafood, arguing that sea life has been so injudiciously hammered in the past five decades that if it’s going to survive we need to give it a true break. That path, of course, puts at risk the livelihoods of 30 million-plus global fishermen and the related industry they support.

Others, attempting to choose wisely, attempt to navigate by choosing so-called sustainable seafood, which leads away from the big-name predators (tuna, salmon, swordfish, mahi-mahi) towards smaller, less-popular thus still prolific species.

But in the booming sushi trade, opting for that admittedly delicious tuna and other at-risk fish can prompt lively pre-dinner brawls, even among the most enlightened carrying smart phones armed with apps to help steer them towards the “safest” fish on the menu.

With bluefin season heating up in the Mediterranean the question is ever more relevant. Several weeks ago Sea Shepherd’s “Operation Blue Rage” sent two of its boats, the Steve Irwin and Brigitte Bardot, to the coast of Libya to help monitor and take direct action if it observes illegal tuna-ing.”Any tuna fishing vessel we find off the Libyan coast will be operating illegally,” said Sea Shepherd’s boss Paul Watson as his boats steamed away from the coast of France toward Libya. “We will cut their nets, free the fish and document and report their operations to ICCAT and the European Union.”

A decade ago it became clear that bluefin would soon be extinct if the hunting continued apace and little has been done to slow the take, even as the popularity of the species booms in sushi restaurants around the globe, from Stillwater to Moscow (and particularly in Japan, which is said to consume 80 percent of the planet’s bluefin). Some marine protectors stick with the prediction that bluefin will be commercially unavailable by 2012 … next year!

A small and hopefully growing number of chefs and restaurants have taken bluefin off the menus. At the same time necessary further protection for the species continues to erode. In May, the Obama administration refused to list it as endangered, which conservationists were calling for; late last year European quotas for tuna were reduced, though by just a few tons, even as worries that any decrease in legal takings would result in a rise in illegal fishing.

NYT food critic Sam Sifton got into the middle of the debate a couple days ago when reviewing the NYC restaurant Masa Masa, which he admits serves “an enormous amount” of bluefin, and of which he admitted to happily sampling during several visits.

So back to the question, To sushi or not to sushi?

Casson Trenor’s book (Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time) and website may be the best place to start building your argument. He operates San Francisco’s only sustainable sushi restaurant, Tataki, and recently hosted a sustainable seafood feast at the National Geographic Society in D.C.

On his recent birthday (32) he blogged: “I talk a lot about moderation on this blog – staying away from critically endangered delicacies like bluefin tuna, not eating sushi four times a week, and all that – and I stand by it. But there’s a time and a place for celebration, and that’s important too. Not that I would eat bluefin tuna even for a holiday banquet, but I just might gorge myself a little bit (or a lot) on some sort of sustainable delight and fall asleep on the couch. My birthday is not a good day to be a crawfish, believe me.”
I think what we’re seeing is the emergence of a list of “good sushi” and “bad sushi.” Or should we simply put it all off limits … for now? Where do you fall?

Sifton’s review elicited a slew of responses. A majority but not all sided with the fish. Others suggest if you don’t like what’s on the menu, vote by not walking through the door. Have a look for yourself and weigh in here at Gadling.

[Flickr image via Bill Hails]