Terror at the Sushi Bar: The Ecological Disaster on the tip of your Chopsticks

I am a long-term (at least 27 years) sushi fanatic, so let me say at the top that I am not advocating boycotting sushi. To the contrary, I eat sushi every chance I get, including the occasional pilgrimage to Morimoto’s in Philadelphia, and one time I looked up my favorite sushi chef in Akasaka, Tokyo after he returned home from Philadelphia.

But visualize a traditional sushi platter with five or six pieces of nigiri (slices of fish on small cakes of rice) and a roll. That one little platter can be used to illustrate a great many themes, including: international law and treaties, international trade, agricultural law and policy, the “tragedy of the commons,” regulation of GMOs (genetically modified organism) and even a bit of cultural imperialism if you wish.

I will play this out over a number of posts, and I will also present this as a discussion at our first “Pizza & Policy in the Pit” on Tuesday, August 31 at noon (where you can safely eat pizza without guilt) but let me just give you a quick overview.

Let’s start with a slice of tuna. Now the centerpiece of most sushi presentations, it wasn’t that long ago that tuna other than albacore that ended up in cans was discarded or made into cat food. The Japanese disdained it as too fatty until post-WWII American occupation forces corrupted their diet and turned them into tuna fanatics. If the tuna on your platter is Bluefin, you are probably paying at least $120 a pound for a fish that has become an endangered species and, in regard to which, all attempts at international fishing regulation have failed. But you probably are eating Yellowfin unless you are in a very high-end sushi bar. Yellowfin is not as prized and is declining in numbers but not yet endangered. Yet.

Next, let’s take a piece of salmon. The salmon is probably farmed, as wild salmon are in steep decline due to overfishing and the damning of spawning streams for hydroelectric power plants. At first blush farming salmon and other fish seems like a great idea, a cure for global hunger. It’s not. Just a few points: it takes almost three pounds of other fish (as food for these carnivores) to grow one pound of salmon, which makes no sense at all. Farmed salmon have been selectively bred and are genetically different from wild salmon, so when they escape these “Frankenfish” are a threat to remaining wild populations. And finally, did you know that if you are eating farmed salmon you are eating a fish that was dyed salmon color? (Salmon chow doesn’t produce salmon-colored salmon so they have to be dyed the right color for consumers).

Just one more piece of nigiri: shrimp. There are some farmed shrimp available, notably from Belize, but wild shrimp harvesting can be an ecological nightmare. Southeast Asian shrimp farming operations are so unsound that you can see the damage shrimp trawlers do to the ocean by viewing Google Earth.

That’s enough depressing news for now. In future blogs I will tell you how to look for ecologically sound fish and eat guilt-free sushi; I’ll provide a suggested reading list on fish and the environment and sushi, and I will go through our sushi platter fish-by-fish to show you how the mistakes of land-based agriculture are being repeated in the oceans of the world.

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