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]

VIDEO: Istanbul in 1967


As an expat in Istanbul, I enjoy seeing anything Turkey-related, and this vintage video of the former Constantinople is especially fun to see. Narrated by a droll British commentator, you travel over and around Istanbul, checking out some of the big sights such as Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, as well as life on the Bosphorus before the bridges were constructed to provide alternate access between the European and Asian sides of the city. Not too much has changed in 45 years, though the traffic seems lighter and the city less crowded than with today’s populate of 13 million (or perhaps more) people. I’d like to say that the Galata Bridge is no longer a “man’s world,” but fishing is still mostly men-only even if women are not only “veiled or hidden away”.

They do miss out on some correct terminology: the “different and delightful” bread ring is a simit, best accompanied by some Turkish cheese or with a full breakfast spread. The “hubble bubble pipe” is a nargile, found at many cafes and bars around the city and savored with a hot glass of çay (only tourists drink the apple stuff) or a cold Efes (if your nargile bar happens to serve alcohol). Barbeque remains a national pastime of the Turks and yes, “any old tin” will do. As in 1967, Istanbul is still the place to savor a fish sandwich fresh from the water, hop on a ferry between continents, and admire your newly shined shoes.

Overfishing and the future generation’s catch

The biggest debate in the ocean world today continues to be, Will we run out of fish, and when?

An intense squabble has been going on for nearly twenty years, since the global catch of seafood peaked in 1994. Predictions since have warned that we’ve taken 90 percent of the fish from the sea and that by 2050 or so all of the fish we currently know would be gone, that jellyfish will rule the seas.

Which is very true … in some places. Globally, despite growing international awareness, fisheries are still being abused, particularly the big fish we most love to eat, including marlins, bluefin tuna, cod and snapper.

But highly-placed members of the U.S. government have been making the rounds in recent months very publicly saying that our fisheries are actually doing quite well, thank you, due largely to laws that are working and a grumbling-but-dutiful bunch of fishermen who are obeying them.

A couple weeks ago Eric Schwaab, administrator of the National Fisheries Service, a branch of NOAA, told a crowd at the Boston Seafood Show that overfishing in the U.S. was in many respects and for the moment … over.

He bolstered his argument with statistics suggesting that the 2007 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which imposed strict annual catch limits in U.S. waters, is working, that the 528 different fish species it monitors are doing okay. He called it an “enormous milestone.”

How big an area are we talking? Just how big is the U.S. fishing zone? 3.4 million square miles paralleling 90,000 miles of coastline.

Those who agree with those government stats say the good news deserves better publicity, that doom-and-gloom headlines about the “end of fishing” attract more eyes than those that show, in fact, fish in some places are making a comeback.

I admit to having contributed to some of those gloomy reports, based primarily on my own empirical research. During my travels to coastlines around the world the past two decades I am constantly quizzing fishermen on their personal experiences at sea. Are you catching as much fish as you did ten years ago? Do you have to go further out to sea to find a reasonable catch? Are some species you used to depend on gone or lessened?

Virtually everywhere I go outside the U.S. the responses are the same: There are fewer fish, especially big ones, which requiring fleets to venture far out to sea in order to find a reasonable catch.

One important distinction is that there is a difference between a fish species that is “overfished” and the act of “overfishing.”

While the two can exist simultaneously, there are some differences, which can be confusing, especially in a headline-dominated media.

A species that is “overfished” means it is below its healthy population level. An overfished area can recover if it is temporarily placed off-limits or certain catch limits are instituted, which is what’s happened in recent years in many U.S. waters.

“Overfishing” means taking more fish out of the ocean than natural reproduction rates can replace. There are many examples of fish species that have been so badly overfished they will never come back. Bluefin tuna is currently headed that direction.

Michael Conathan, director of Ocean Policy for the Center for American Progress (CAP), explains it this way: “In effect, this is the difference between a household’s budget and debt. Exceeding an annual budget is overspending. Overspending for multiple years will accumulate debt, which can be referred to as being in an ‘overspent’ state. Even when overspending stops, the red ink doesn’t magically turn black. The deficit remains. Many of our fisheries are still overfished (or overspent), but the first step in resolving that dilemma is halting overfishing.”

At a minimum, the current laws regulating fishing in the U.S. have helped the fisheries “make progress” (Schwaab’s words). I am happy to help spread that word. But a worry exists: There are plenty in the commercial fishing business, and politicians whose voters work in the fishing industry, who want to take a glimmer of good news and change the laws and open the fisheries back up to bigger takes. Many believe that would be too much too soon, that the fisheries need more years to fully recover. Grumbling fishermen disagree.

One overriding concern no matter which side of the debate you’re on is that fishing, like all big businesses today, knows no boundaries.

The market for fish is a global one. Eighty-four percent of the fish consumed in the U.S. comes from abroad; half of that is from farms. Much of the fish caught in the U.S. is sent abroad.

Government fishing officials in countries ranging from Vietnam to Indonesia, Japan to the Mediterranean, are not as optimistic as their U.S. counterparts. Many of them report parts of their fisheries that are dead and gone, never to return.

While U.S. enforcement seems to be working for now, the worldwide demand for fish continues to grow and someone’s going to fill it. There are plenty of fishermen out there on the ocean happy to comply, rules and regulations be damned.

[flickr image via katiedubya]

Fishing in the French Polynesian waters

Fakarava Atoll, the Tuamotus, French Polynesia – Maru’s 16-foot, plywood fishing boat, steered by one metal rod coming straight out of the floorboards in his left hand and accelerated by another rod held tightly in his right hand, hugs the eastern edge of Passe Garuae. One of only two passes accessing the atoll’s thirty-six-by-twenty-one mile lagoon, twice day big water rushes either in or out and navigation requires years of experience.

As we try to edge our way out onto the South Pacific for a day of fishing, currents at the heart of the pass are running out at about seven knots, creating what appear to be standing riptides. If we were anywhere near the center, we’d most likely be cart wheeled by the fast-moving water and big waves.

Maru, a 46-year-old native of Fakarava – the Tuamotus’ second-largest atoll – has driven boats through here thousands of time, so far without incident. I’m hoping his luck stays.

Despite a population of about 700 on this remote atoll 150 miles north and east of Tahiti, there are surprisingly few people making a living off fishing. It’s not because there aren’t fish, but because the big industry here – black pearls-has become more lucrative and in some respects easier. Though the boom in the growing of black pearls has weakened the industry a bit in recent years by flooding the market – every Polynesian with access to the ocean wants in on the business – it doesn’t require risking life and limb on the open ocean everyday.

Maru tells me he prefers this life than the more intensive routine of seeding oysters and monitoring them for more than a year and a half, hoping they’ll produce pearls. His days are routine, leaving from the docks of Fakarava’s one town around six and returning by two or three in the afternoon. His catch provides the bulk of the fresh fish for the atoll’s residents. This day he’ll take a dozen big mahi-mahi, spearing them from his boat while simultaneously steering and accelerating. He surveys for signs of a small school – watching for the big fish to break the surface – and then chases them down, tiring them. It requires a skill-set few Westerners can imagine: Steering, accelerating, scouting and spearing, all with only two hands.He is a man of few words, especially when intent on the catch. But after he pulls in his last fish of the morning he admits that he feels “more alive” when he’s out on the sea. Today the ocean is nearly glassy-calm, though there are days when it is not quite so paradise-like. Gray skies and big winds do visit this corner of French Polynesia, though he admits they are rare.

Fishing for jacks or sharks inside the big lagoon is an option, but for the big, wild fish – bonito, yellow-fin tuna, mahi-mahi, barracuda or paru, a large red perch – the ocean is the place.

My real curiosity with Maru is if there are plenty of fish here in this part of the Pacific or if numbers are decreasing. Since he fishes six days a week, he’s the best source on the atoll and assures me there are plenty of fish in his ocean and that he catches as much as he wants, on any day.

The biggest pressure here is not what the locals take from the sea though; it is the pressure of illegal fishing by big boats from China, Japan, Europe and even South America. A 200-mile EEZ protects all of French Polynesia’s 130 islands and the territory has agreements with some fishing fleets to allow quotas on yellow-fin tuna catches. But last year a Spanish trawler with motor trouble was towed into the Marquesan island of Nuka Hiva, loaded with illegally caught fish. A Venezuelan boat was fined $635,000 and its captain jailed for a month recently for taking at least 80 tons of tuna over a few weeks in the same waters.

The beautiful, seemingly trouble-free waters that surround us this day are emblematic of a global ocean dilemma. While there are plenty of international and local laws on the books to protect against poaching and illegal fishing, enforcement is very difficult. The 130 islands of Polynesia cover just 1,622 square miles of land but the territory includes nearly 1 million square miles of ocean. With a small Navy, supported by tax-dollars from France, surveying all that blue is a difficult task.

To Maru, such concerns seem to come from another world. His focus is pretty narrow, mostly on tomorrow, maybe the end of the week. He says he rarely sees signs of international fishermen – though they are out there, all around – and brags that on any given day he can fill his bright-red boat with big, colorful fish. The trickier challenge for him is that the market is not what it used to be.

“It used to be that everything I caught was sold in Fakarava,” he says, after successfully navigating against still-outgoing currents in the pass and into the lagoon. “Now, because we get so much food flown in or by cargo boat from Tahiti, there are less people buying.” He often ends up freezing part of his catch and selling it to bigger boats heading back to Tahiti.

“It’s easier when I sell everything to my neighbors,” he says. “But wherever the fish sell, I’m happy.”

The future of Japanese fishing

Given the hammering Japan’s fishing towns took thanks to the earthquake/tsunami and the continued leaking of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant it is legitimate to question the future of fish in the region.

Just like the fishermen in the Gulf after the BP spill, seafood providers across Japan are concerned about an inevitable public relations fall out even if its fish stays available and safe, i.e. non-radioactive.

While the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, the world’s biggest — selling more than 400 species of fish six days a week, a $5.5 billion a year business providing 40 million Japanese fish-lovers – has not yet backed off selling anything, buyers have fallen off due to a lack of fish.

The most immediate concern is that so many of the small towns in the north – and their boats, docks, jetties, nets, tackle and fishermen – are gone. Fish farms and onshore processing plants have been wiped out, hundreds of thousands of wild fish washed onto shore, dead. As a result, scallops, sardines, oysters, seaweed, bonito and even shark’s fin have largely disappeared from Tsukiji in the past week.

The normally packed aisles of the sprawling market – the equivalent of 200 football fields under one roof — are quiet. “We’re not selling anything because there are no customers,” one wholesaler at the market reported. Sales to restaurants have fallen off too.” Sushi restaurants near the market are suffering too, in part due to the lack of tourists.Tsukiji’s general manager, Tsutomu Kosaka, told the New York Times, “It’s not like the brand is just damaged now – it’s over. At least for now, the brand is finished. Gone. It’s hopeless.”

The early consensus based on what’s happened so far at the struggling nuclear plant is that fish pulled from the sea off Japan should be safe, given that winds and currents will disperse any potentially dangerous particles before they can pollute. But Japan’s seafood export business – $2.4 billion last year – will definitely take a hit.

South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Singapore and the Philippines announced more intense screening of seafood from Japan. Many restaurants across Asia have stopped buying seafood from Japan. “Until the situation stabilizes in the country, it seems unlikely that guests will feel comfortable consuming Japanese products,” said the manager of the Hong-Kong-based Mandarin Oriental International hotels. The Four Season Hotel’s, also Hong Kong-based, has suspended import of all Japanese food, including scallops and abalone, buying instead from New Zealand and Australia, Scotland and Indonesia.

While dairy products (milk and eggs), grains, vegetables and meat might be susceptible to radioactivity exposure experts suggest that the impact on fish will be “negligible.”

Far from Japan, in Mumbai, caution was being taken. “You don’t know which fish is contaminated and which one is not. So the precautionary principle is to ban all fish coming from there,” said one nuclear expert.

The reality is that relatively little Japanese seafood makes it to the U.S.; your corner sushi restaurant is more likely to get its fish from China, Chile or Thailand. Most imports were stopped before the nuclear plants started leaking. Still the FDA said it may “increase and target product sampling” of goods from Japan for contamination.

One market that will most likely grow? Export of seafood from the U.S. to Japan, currently a $750 million a year industry. The 127 million Japanese depend on seafood as a staple, consuming twenty percent of the world’s seafood. But for the moment almost all exporting to Japan is on hold as the country rebuilds its infrastructure; simply delivering goods to many corners of the country has stopped.

But the short-term future of Japan’s fisheries may be most affected by perception rather than reality. The market for Gulf seafood is way off, nearly one year after the BP spill. Given the massive destruction along Japan’s coastline, the impact on its fishing grounds – and fish — could be felt far longer.

[flickr image via DigiPub]