Sustainable Sushi – What can I do?

Bluefin TunaWhat can I do?
You can cause change on a small scale by spending your money wisely. Many people acting in a similar fashion can make a significant impact. Be a leader! You can make a difference simply by talking as well. Talk to your local sushi chef, ask questions in restaurants before buying – it really does make a difference, slowly but surely.

Instead of eating farmed salmon, buy arctic char; sushibars are reporting great success serving this to customers. Wild Alaskan salmon is a terrific treat, but since it’s seasonal give the char a try! Bamboo Sushi in Portland reportedly delights its customers with sablefish topped with eel sauce in place of unagi. Albacore tuna is a good replacement for the usual but unsustainable maguro and toro; Whole Foods is selling some of this fish which used to be used only in canned tuna products in premium products like fresh sushi rolls.

Now comes the hard part. Some traditional sushi fare is processed before it hits the retail market, and as such is difficult to tell anything about. We know where our salmon comes from, if it was farmed, where it was caught or farmed, etc. We know nothing about some traditional staples of sushi bars. Unagi, for example, is typically cleaned, cooked and packaged before being sent to the distributor your local sushi chef buys it from. Tako, or octopus, likewise is cooked and processed in central food preparation centers in Japan before being shipped worldwide.

So how can you find out if the tako your local restaurant is selling was sourced from a sustainable or managed location? How can you know if these animals were caught in a way which does not destroy the habitat on the ocean floor? Sadly you cannot. In the case of some, like our unagi example, the answer is obvious: go for alternative foods like the sablefish “fake unagi”. But the octopus is hard to mimic – perhaps you just need to resign yourself to avoiding it.

I live on the coast in a major market, but I have yet to find a sushi restaurant in my area interested in creating a set of sustainable menu choices. Does that mean I need to give up eating sushi? Heck no! But I will think about what I’m ordering. I will ask questions. And I will talk about sustainability with local sushi chefs. My sales pitch is basically that there is a great opportunity in my area for a restaurant to distinguish itself from the countless other sushi bars by heading down this thoughtful path. Stay tuned to find out if any local restauranteurs agree.

Meanwhile, educate yourself. Start with easy fun stuff, like this seafood sustainability quiz from the Monterey Bay Aquarium website. Be sure to explore their website and get their seafood list. Also work your way through reading all the great content on the site. And tell the world when you find a sushi bar making a difference so others can support them.

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