It may be in a can, and it may say chicken, but it’s still a fish. Seriously, Jessica.
Seafood isn’t only sold in the seafood section. Americans buy a tremendous amount our seafood from the shelves of our local grocer rather than from the freezers, including one particular item that we put in everything from sandwiches to casseroles to salads: tuna fish.
For decades, tuna was the most widely consumed seafood product in the United States. Although it has recently lost pole position to farmed shrimp, it is still massively popular, and even though it’s in a can, it is still fish, and thus merits scrutiny in terms of sustainable practices – or, in this case, its total lack thereof.
Here’s the issue: catching tuna in a manner that keeps the price hovering around $1-$2 per can is difficult. It’s a challenging process for a number of reasons, not least of which is that most species of tuna are constantly on the move across the vastness of the open ocean. Chasing these schools around is a time- and resource-intensive process – especially with oil prices on the perpetual upswing – but the tuna industry has found a way to cut some pretty significant corners. Unfortunately, this has led to any number of nasty consequences, and those smiling bumblebees and luxuriating mermaids on the tuna cans at your neighborhood grocery store have done a great job covering them up… until now.
Fish aggregating devices (aka FADs) are floating objects that tuna vessels cast adrift in the open ocean. They are generally attached to a radio beacon and can relay their position back to a given tuna boat. FADs work because fish in the open ocean find random flotsam absolutely captivating. Small plants and polyps anchor themselves to the physical body of the FAD, small fish use it as a hiding place, and larger animals flock to it as a source of shade and as a fertile hunting ground. After a few weeks at sea, a FAD can develop an entire ecosystem around it – which is wiped out entirely when the tuna boat returns and scoops the whole thing up in a seine net.
A juvenile bigeye killed in a FAD-associated skipjack seine. There were hundreds more under my feet... and that was just one haul on one ship.
The problem here is that FADs don’t just attract the target species of tuna (usually skipjack). They are similarly mesmerizing to sharks, billfish, and other animals – most notably juvenile yellowfin and bigeye tuna – that come swimming by wondering what all the fuss is about. By then, it’s generally too late.FADs increase bycatch in the skipjack tuna industry by between 500% and 1000% when compared to nets set on free-swimming schools (FAD-free seining.) To make matters worse, between 15% and 20% of the total catch of a FAD-associated skipjack seine is actually juvenile yellowfin and bigeye – two species of tuna that are in serious trouble and cannot afford to have their young purloined before they ever have a chance to breed. The total content of bigeye and yellowfin in FAD-free skipjack seines is less than 1%.
I’ll put this plainly – if we don’t stop using FADs, we will run out of yellowfin and bigeye tuna because we will kill all of the juveniles.
Rule one for sustainable canned tuna: When shopping for “light” tuna, buy pole-and-line or FAD-free seined skipjack.
Cans of “white” tuna contain albacore, a temperate tuna species that is only popular in canned form in North America. Albacore isn’t caught with purse seines as often as it is caught on longlines – an equally destructive practice that incurs a tremendous amount of bycatch.
A turtle caught on a Korean longliner's tuna gear. It's dead.
Longlines are just that – long lines set by fishing vessels that stretch from buoy to buoy across the open ocean, sometimes for multiple miles at a stretch. Every few yards, a long lead ending in a baited hook dangles from the main line. When the ship circles back to reel in the longline and assess its catch, it contains far more than albacore tuna. This indiscriminate fishing method is one of the greatest killers of turtles (which get hooked nibbling on the bait, can’t return to the surface to breathe, and drown), albatross and other seabirds (which dive on the glinting hooks thinking that they’re fish and are subsequently snagged), and other non-targeted animals.
The total bycatch rate of this massively destructive operation is estimated to be somewhere just shy of 30% of the total take… that means nearly one third of the total global catch of the albacore fleet – thousands upon thousands of tons per year – is turtles, sharks, sea birds, and other casualties of the industry’s callousness and greed.
Rule two for sustainable canned tuna: When shopping for “white” tuna, buy pole-and-line albacore.
3) Unregulated fishing on the high seas
Outside of the boundaries of a country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which stretches two hundred miles into the ocean beyond the shores of any given state, there exists a lawless, oceanic “Wild West” known as the high seas. When it comes to fishing, most anything goes out there as there are no universally acknowledged enforcement bodies that can serve to protect our common resources.
The water runs red with the blood of the tuna. As a seine net closes, the plastic filaments cut into the fish, slicing them to ribbons. Mortality in a seine operation approaches 100% -- another reason that there's no such thing as an "eco-FAD".
Tuna vessels regularly park just shy of this two hundred mile line, inside what are often referred to as the “high seas pockets” – four areas of unregulated ocean that are fully encircled by the EEZs of any number of island states in the western and central Pacific that depend on tuna stocks for their economic livelihood. Tuna, of course, know nothing of international boundaries, and pass freely back and forth over these lines until they are netted up by a nearby predatory seiner. Since these vessels are operating in what are technically high seas areas, they have no rules to follow – no quotas, no maximum limits, etc. – and they don’t have to pay dues or access fees to the countries that actually own and manage the resources. Activities like transshipping (transferring fish from one vessel to another to allow for longer fishing times and less resource expenditure) are common, which further reduces the abilities of these nearby states to manage their tuna stocks sustainably.
Rule three for sustainable canned tuna: Tuna should be caught in managed waters. Buy tuna from companies that refuse to fish in the high seas pockets.
4) Stolen fish, stolen future
Following on the above point, might tends to make right when there aren’t any overarching laws offering protection to those involved. The tuna industry has been the scene of an infuriating amount of bullying over the past decades, mainly by larger, more wealthy nations – countries like Taiwan, Spain, the United States – that have ransacked the waters of the independent Pacific Island states. Countries like Kiribati and Tuvalu have virtually no resources aside from tuna, and without a modicum of international law and market support to enable them to draw a fair and honest living from it, the established international tuna barons – companies like Thai Union (which owns the well-known US brand Chicken of the Sea), Fong Chin Formosa, and Dong Won – are able to pillage their waters with near impunity. Recently, a number of tuna-rich but cash-poor Pacific island states have banded together in an effort to take charge of their fisheries and to keep the tuna pirates out of their watery backyards. These states are known collectively as the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), and they represent one of our best chances to foster a sustainable and equitable tuna industry that protects both the ocean’s tuna populations, and the peoples that depend on them.
A powerful conservation movement is afoot in the United States. Shark finning — the practice of catching sharks, slicing their fins off, and then dumping the animals overboard (often still alive and slowly bleeding to death) — is being exposed for the monstrosity it is. Globally, we slaughter tens of millions of sharks each year. And for the most part, we do it for the fins, which can fetch hundreds of dollars a pound.
It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of such a law passing in California. More shark fins are sold and consumed in the Golden State than in any of the other 49. If we can manage to protect these unique animals under California state law, we may not be far from a nationwide moratorium on this staggeringly unsustainable practice.
Here are several common arguments being used to defend this practice, followed by my thoughts on why they’re unsound.
1: Shark fin consumption is a cultural practice and tradition.
Some cultures have a history of consuming shark fin. I am not in any place to pass judgment on these cultures, and I don’t want to. All I want to say is that culture is not the unchanging monolith that some make it out to be.
... to worse...
Culture is a dynamic representation of both the history and the current state of a particular group, be it based around attitudes, ideals, goals, shared experiences, or other connective forces. A culture is not a static thing — it changes with the times. Over the centuries, many cultural practices have ended in favor of the evolving wisdom and consciousness of the human race. For example, while I may not be part of a culture that has historically practiced shark finning, I am a member of a culture that has historically practiced slavery.
I am a Caucasian American and a direct descendant of slave-owning ancestors who believed in the inferiority of human beings with a darker skin color than their own. I even have relatives who died while shooting at the Union army to protect this cultural practice (among other things, of course). Slavery was a common practice in North America for centuries. It was part of our culture. It was also wrong. And, thankfully, it ended.
Human beings evolve. Our cultures evolve. As we learn more about our planet and ourselves, we gain the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. We now know far too much about humanity’s dependence on Earth’s environment to keep slaughtering sharks for their fins. The tragedy of shark finning is more than just sharks dying for shortsighted profit — it’s that today, when we have learned so much about sharks and their irreplaceable roles in our oceans, we continue to mindlessly slaughter them in the name of “culture.”
2: Shark fin is good for your health.
Some schools of Eastern medicine equate shark fin consumption with heightened energy and virility. I am certainly no nutritionist, and will not attempt to dispute this belief. That said, it’s a proven fact that a typical bowl of shark fin soup is in actuality quite devoid of most vitamins when compared to, say, a similar serving of vegetable soup. Shark fin does have some nutritional value — especially some key elements like iron and zinc — but it’s nothing one couldn’t get from any number of other foods. To kill a shark for such a meager nutritional reward is a terrible bargain for the planet at large.
3: Sharks are dangerous! They eat people!
Certain works of art, literature and film have such a profound impact on society that they literally shape our culture. Jawswas one of those films. It terrified an entire generation and set shark conservation efforts back 20 years.
... to even worse.
Jaws was also one of the most inaccurate and unfair films ever made when it comes to portraying actual shark behavior. The film that made us all afraid to go back in the water had virtually zero basis in reality, yet it engendered a phobia of sharks that has afflicted us for decades. The problem is so acute, in fact, that Peter Benchley, the creator of Jaws, had a massive crisis of conscience and dedicated much of his later life to ocean conservation and shark protection efforts.
Globally, shark encounters with humans account for about 10 deaths a year, give or take a handful. By contrast, lightning strikes kill over 20,000 people each year. Dog bites, pig attacks, and even fugu blowfish (due to improper preparation) cause more human fatalities annually than sharks. Sharks are not the mindless killing machines that we once feared they were. The contribution sharks make to a healthy ocean vastly outweighs their danger to the human race.
4: We can fin sharks in a sustainable manner.
Really? Can we? I personally doubt that very much. We understand very little about most species of sharks, and it is extremely difficult to properly manage a fishery when we lack such key information as growth rate, migration patterns, and reproductive behavior.
It's not worth it.
That, however, is not even the main issue. Sustainability goes beyond choosing which species are acceptable to consume and which aren’t. One of the core issues here is respect for the animal — which, in this case, is manifest in how we are using it for our own purposes. How can we have a sustainable fishery that involves cutting off the fins of a living creature and dumping the rest? This kind of waste and disrespect has no place in a modern food system that is based on ecosystem awareness and sound resource management. To look at this in simple economic terms: If a given shark weighs, say, 150 pounds, the fins might be 10 pounds of that. So to cut off the fins and dump the rest is equivalent to a retention rate of 1:14 — one pound of catch, 14 pounds of waste.
The very act of shark finning flies directly in the face of sustainable living. We need to outgrow this practice and embrace a positive relationship with sharks. For those of you residing in California, please contact your state representative as soon as possible and urge her/him to support AB 376. An ocean without sharks just won’t work.
Even as the plight of our oceans worsens, a large sector of the seafood industry continues to defend the status quo. Issues of grave concern like overfishing, bottom trawling, and piracy are swept under the carpet time and time again by the same tired argument: “sustainable seafood is too expensive.”
This adage comes in many forms. “Sustainability is just for the rich,” is a common one. Or maybe the scoundrels go for the jugular with pseudo-patriotic poppycock like “real Americans can’t afford to eat sustainable fish.” This scare tactic is designed to end the conversation so conventional industry can get back to slinging the same ill-gotten plunder that’s gotten us to this point of ailing seas and depleted fish stocks.
The fact of the matter is that, at the end of the day, it’s not sustainable seafood that’s too expensive – rather, it is unsustainable seafood, with all of its associated externalities, subsidies, and Faustian bargains that is out of our price range. It’s time to put this argument where it belongs: in the past.
This month’s 4 Oceans highlights several stores priced for mainstream America that are leading the charge on sustainable seafood in conventional retail. If these guys can do it, anyone can.
It may come as a shock, but the 1700+ Safeway stores across the country are on track to become a powerful force for ocean conservation. According to Greenpeace’s most recent seafood retailer ranking, Safeway has the most sustainable seafood operation of any major market in the United States. With a score of 6.5 out of 10, Safeway has a long way to go yet, but has still managed to outperform stores like Whole Foods that are generally assumed to be more able to provide sustainable options thanks to more affluent clientele.
Safeway has recently discontinued some particularly unsustainable seafood items (like orange roughy) and is providing thorough in-store information about their commitment to sustainability. The company has also spoken out publicly in favor of global conservation efforts; their recent shout-out supporting Ross Sea protection is an excellent example of how mainstream retailers are rounding the horn on seafood sustainability and foraying into the highly political – and critically important – arena of marine reserve establishment.
Do the right thing
The big-box retail titan from Minnesota tied for the #2 spot in this year’s rankings with Wegmans (a progressive high-end grocer that has also done some extremely impressive work on seafood sustainability). This is actually a slight step down for Target – the company took the top spot in last year’s rankings, largely because of its willingness to tackle Matterhorn-like challenges that other companies refuse to even consider. A prime example is Target’s decision to discontinue all forms of farmed salmon throughout their entire operation. This initiative has greatly deflated conventional industry “farmed salmon is necessary because people want inexpensive salmon” fear-mongering.
Target has also evolved beyond the sale of unsustainable mainstays like Chilean sea bass, and continuing to press forward along other avenues of seafood sustainability. It’s true that Target doesn’t sell a great deal of seafood when compared to many other nationwide retailers, but this kind of progress still goes to show that even big-box discounters can do great things for environmental preservation when they commit to it.
3) Harris Teeter
The growing consumer demand for sustainable seafood is not only found in the leftist enclaves of Northern California or among patrons of trendy, feel-good East Village restaurants. The sustainable seafood movement is making headway all across the country, and in the American South, this has been spearheaded by the remarkable efforts of Harris Teeter, a household-name grocery store that has dominated much of the retail sector in Georgia and the Carolinas for decades. Even though Harris Teeter competes directly with price-focused grocers such as Food Lion and Walmart, the company has taken an aggressive approach to seafood sustainability and is becoming an undeniable leader in the sector.
Over the past couple of years, Harris Teeter has discontinued orange roughy, augmented their sourcing policy to take key environmental issues (such as pirate fishing) into account during purchasing, and created a comprehensive seafood information clearinghouse within their website to enable their customers to learn more about all of the various seafood options available at Harris Teeter. The company is currently #6 in Greenpeace’s retailer ranking, but with a score of 5.8/10 is less than three-quarters-of-a-point behind the current #1 (Safeway).
Lifting the veil
Aldi’s no-nonsense approach to discount retail has earned the company appeal in the eyes of many bargain hunters across the Midwest. Still, it doesn’t often figure as a top destination for seafood shoppers… but maybe it should.Aldi doesn’t sell a tremendous amount of seafood, but for such a small category, Aldi’s seafood gets an impressive amount of attention and dedication from company leadership. Aldi has leapt up Greenpeace’s retailer rankings for the second year in a row, moving from a 1.9 out of ten in 2009, to a 3.9/10 in 2010, and now to a 5.5/10 this year (which has earned the company seventh place overall in the 2011 rankings).
Aldi sells no farmed salmon, has already eliminated the worst of its unsustainable species (like orange roughy), and currently offers only seven red list items (where most markets average around 12 or 13). The company also provides a substantial amount of information to consumers through comprehensive seafood labeling practices. Interested customers can discern where any given Aldi seafood product was caught (FAO catch area), the precise species in question (latin name), and the method used in capturing the fish (gear type indications) just by looking at the label. It’s refreshing to see a discount retailer selling fish without obfuscating it under market monikers; hopefully this is a trend that will continue as seafood sustainability continues to enter the mainstream.
Guest posts at sustainablesushi.net do not necessarily represent the opinion of the owner/operator of this website (Casson Trenor). In fact, they are often chosen specifically because they offer an alternative perspective and can give rise to int
eresting debate. Guest authors neither pay nor receive any sort of compensation for their participation.
Illustrations and captions are provided by sustainablesushi.net unless indicated otherwise.
Fitness guru Denis Faye of Beachbody
Sushi: The Ultimate Sports Supplement?
By Denis Faye
Everyone loves the idea of fitness, but actually doing it is a different story. It all sounds so wonderful until you realize you need to exercise every day and, even worse, cut all the good stuff out of our diet.
However, it’s not all that bad. In fact, some of the foods you consider indulgent can offer huge health benefits. (The exercising part is a whole other story. You’re on your own for that one.) One perfect example of this is sushi. If done right, it’s not just good for, it’s a great way to get the nutrients you need to propel that active lifestyle. Let’s take a closer look at everyone favorite Japanese culinary contribution.
But before I start, I need to throw down a few caveats. First off, I’m not talking about those Double-Rainbow-Spicy-Crab-Inside-Out-California-Detroit Rolls that many consider crucial to a visit to sushi bar. They’re usually loaded with sodium-rich or fatty sauces and the minute amount of fish within has usually been fried or mayonnaised into nutritional oblivion. I’m talking straight sushi or sashimi: a nice slice of raw fish (sorry, unagi lovers), maybe a little rice, or maybe a simple maki: fish and rice a little nori (seaweed) wrapped around it.
"Soy sauce is not a beverage." -- Chef Hajime Sato
Also, keep the soy sauce to a minimum. Exercise tends to drain the body of sodium, so the physically fit can get away with more salt intake, but there are still limits. Stick to low-sodium sauce and dip the fish part of the sushi instead of saturating the rice part. If the fish is good, you won’t want to drown out the flavor anyway!
Finally, moderation is key. When it comes to eating healthy, if you need to loosen your belt after a meal, no matter how nutrition it was, you blew it. But as long as you don’t get carried away, fish is one of the healthiest sources of protein you can get. The main reason for this is the super-healthy fat that comes with it.
While many people mistakenly avoid all fat when trying to eat right, the truth is, fat is a vital nutrient. It’s crucial that you have it in your diet. Most fish is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which help brain function and act as an anti-inflammatory – a great asset when dealing with bodily stress induced by hard, physical training. Salmon and tuna are both high in omega-3s, as is mackerel, but as you know, the mackerel used in sushi tends to be cured in salt, driving up the sodium count.
As for mercury-in-seafood debate, unless you’re pregnant, nursing, or a small child, you generally don’t need to worry about it. For the rest of us, the omega-3 benefits are worth a little mercury. As long as you limit fish intake to 4 servings a week or so, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about.
Now, onto the rice. Generally speaking, brown rice is healthier for you. It’s higher in fiber, which slows absorption into the blood stream. That’s a good thing, because absorbing too many carbs too fast can lead to blood sugar spikes, which, in turn, can lead to type 2 diabetes and obesity. But there are a couple factors here that make white rice okay. First, while you don’t have the fiber to slow absorption, the fat and protein in the fish can serve the same function; so make sure your chef is generous with the fish. And, in the event that you do overdo the rice, here’s a neat thing about working out: After intense exercise, especially when it involves anaerobic (or weightlifting) activity, your blood sugar drops because you were using it as fuel. So, whereas that influx of carbs (white rice) into your system might be bad at other times, post-workout, it serves to top off your tank and rush other nutrients into your system faster. In the fitness world, we call that kind of timed nutrition a recovery meal.
Finally, seaweed is so good for you on so many levels. For the athlete, it’s packed with minerals, or electrolytes, which are often wicked out in training. It also has antioxidant properties, which strengthen the immune system – something else that can get compromised after intense workouts.
So work hard and eat right, but treat yourself to a sushi meal every now and again. It’s the right thing to do. Who knew eating right could be so much fun?
Starting out as “weight challenged,” Denis Faye dropped 50 pounds following a 5-year jaunt through Australia, a trip that helped him become the extreme fitness and sports enthusiast he is today. He’s been a professional journalist for 20 years, writing for Surfer, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Outside, Wired, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, GQ, Surfer, and Pacific Longboarder. His sports include swimming, scuba, trekking, rock climbing, mountain biking, spelunking, and — most importantly — surfing. Denis writes for Beachbody, which provides effective and popular exercise videos including the well known P90x program.
In my little world, celebrations and holidays just aren’t complete without copious amounts of food. My birthday is no exception – I look forward to it every year as an excuse to throw caution (and, perhaps, responsibility) to the wind and to indulge myself. I like to get together with loved ones and either cook up a feast or dine at some up-and-coming restaurant that I’ve been salivating over for months.
I realize 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.
Anyhow, my thirty-second rolled around last week, and as per my usual routine, I decided to celebrate with a feel-good dinner. This time, though, I went about things in a slightly different way.
I know that sounds like a bit of an odd place to celebrate, but I felt it was important to pay Safeway a visit. See, the company had just done something very special – something that deserved celebration far more than me surviving another trip around the sun. But by a fun coincidence, both events happened to occur on the same day.
Of all the major seafood retailers in the United States, only one other company – Wegmans, a well-regarded and progressive grocery chain in the Northeastern United States – has made such a statement in support of the Ross Sea. It’s nearly unheard of for a retail operation to foray into the political sphere in the name of the conservation movement. And Safeway, with the buying power of over 1700 stores, is an extremely powerful voice – just the kind of voice we need on the side of ocean conservation if we are to have any hope of protecting and resuscitating our ailing seas.
Chilean sea bass: seal food, not people food
I admit to being a borderline fanatic when it comes to Ross Sea conservation, but it’s of critical importance. Not only is it a unique and invaluable ecosystem for a myriad of reasons, both scientific and ecological, but sending fishing vessels to this far-flung area raises a host of red flags from a sustainability perspective. It goes beyond issues relating to discrete fishery management and into a larger philosophical realm, which is where the core battle for sustainability needs to be fought.
I know I’ve said this before, but it merits repeating: sustainable fishing simply cannot occur when the fishery in question exists only as a reaction to an out-of-balance food system. We have depleted the fish closer to our homes and cities, so we sail ever outward in search of more – but there is a limit. The Earth is finite. Industrial fishing in the Ross Sea – or anywhere so far from human habitation and so close to the “end of the world,” as it were – must end if we are to develop a balanced and healthy relationship with our food and our planet.
One small step for Antarctica
So, here’s to you, Safeway. Your public commitment to this key initiative was one of the reasons you took the top spot in Greenpeace’s most recent seafood retailer ranking, and I salute you for your drive and courage. The Ross Sea — and the entire ecosystem that depends on it, including migratory whales, krill blooms, and countless other animals — is a little closer to safety because of you.
Thanks for standing up for the planet, and thanks for such a nice birthday present.
Oh, and check it out – I got myself a present, too.
The thunderous power of the dollar can obliterate nearly all barriers between consumers and the objects of our desire. If one is willing and able to throw out enough cash, there’s very little in this world that we can’t have. Sadly, this reach extends to a number of aquatic species that just aren’t built to cope with such pressure. In this month’s “4 Oceans,” we examine several seafood items that we just shouldn’t eat, even if we have the wherewithal to acquire them.
This is probably old news to a lot of readers, but the current state of the world’s bluefin tuna populations have been reduced to shadows of their former glory. The fish that fed Rome’s legions now barely ekes out an existence as it is hunted relentlessly to satisfy the top echelon of the world’s sushi industry. Bluefin prices soar while stocks continue to plummet, shackled to the twin lead weights of insatiable demand and ineffectual management.
I can answer that
Last year, a smattering of different countries attempted to grant the bluefin protection under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), which would have effectively ended international trade in this animal. This push was mercilessly quashed by a larger and more committed cadre of governments led by Japan, which hosted cooperative delegates at a pre-vote banquet where they served – you guessed it – bluefin tuna.
Bluefin stocks around the world are verging on utter collapse and yet fishing pressure does not abate. Politics and short-sighted economic interests are nearly always victorious over science and environmental consciousness whenever this bluefin is involved. But even if we can’t depend on political processes, we can least put the chopsticks down.
Over the last four years, ten of the twenty largest seafood retailers in the United States have discontinued orange roughy. Some stores, like Whole Foods and Wegmans, even made public statements on the environmental impacts associated with this fishery when explaining their decisions to stop selling this species. It’s comforting to see for-profit retail enterprises taking stands that seem based more on ethics and long-game considerations than simple quick-fix cash grabs.
You're having a rough day, orange you?
Anyhow, orange roughy is a fish that has no business playing any significant role in our seafood industry. The animal simply isn’t built to withstand heavy fishing pressure. First off, it reaches market size well before sexual maturity – a lamentable characteristic, since this results in many roughy being eaten before they’ve had a chance to reproduce and repopulate the fishery. Second, the animal itself can live to a tremendous age – ninety-year-old roughy are not uncommon (at least, they weren’t before we started eating them all.) Fish that live that long are generally not built to reproduce in great numbers; they have evolutionarily invested in longevity rather than in quantity of offspring.
To worsen matters, orange roughy is caught using wantonly destructive bottom trawl nets, and its flesh is a simple, flaky white fillet (there are other, more sustainable sources for this type of product.) It’s best to avoid this species altogether.
Shark (and shark fin)
The more we learn about the role that sharks play in our oceanic ecosystems, the more bat-shit crazy we have to be to keep slaughtering them. Sharks are apex predators, feeding slowly from the top of the food chain and ensuring that the populations of other animals in their areas are kept in check. Without sharks, we see population explosions of their prey items, which in turn devastate the organisms that they prey upon, and so on and so forth. The removal of a single shark from the food system it polices is akin to hurtling a massive monkey wrench into the core gears of the ocean’s ecological stabilization machinery, and we are tossing out somewhere between 50 and 100 million of these wrenches every year.
While many sharks are killed accidentally as bycatch in longline fisheries that target other animals (longlined swordfish is particularly worrisome), the majority of annual shark casualties are perpetrated intentionally by those the shark fin industry. Shark fins – used for soup, especially for weddings and other significant events, by certain segments of the world’s Chinese communities – can fetch astronomical prices and are often used to convey a message of status and wealth. Luckily, the world is waking up to the damage that finning wreaks upon our ocean. Shark fin bans have been enacted in Hawaii, Guam, and Saipan (Mariana Islands), and have been proposed in California, Oregon, and Washington State. If these landmark pieces of legislation pass, we will have taken a great step towards protecting these unique and mysterious creatures.
Chilean sea bass
The Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish (aka Chilean sea bass) are long-lived, slow-to-reproduce apex predators. Still, there are those that claim there is such a thing as a sustainable Chilean sea bass fishery. Some would argue that a particular population, under the guidelines of a particular management authority, governed under a certain catch quota, can in fact be fished sustainably, and that this particular fishery, cut off from the larger amorphous Chilean sea bass industry – dominated as it is by pirates and a rapacious gold-rush mentality – merits our support.
The face of overfishing?
Allow me to propose a slightly different line of thought.
The world is a finite place. I know it doesn’t seem as such, but the ocean is a contained area, and it has boundaries. It does not go on forever. It ends – and in more than one sense.
Over the past century, the way that we fish has changed. Decade after decade, we have pushed the boundaries of our oceans in every way imaginable – geographically (ships are going farther), bathymetrically (ships are fishing deeper), and temporally (ships are spending more time on the water). In our quest for seafood, we strain at the very boundaries of our food system, until we reach the ocean’s farthest-flung reaches in all three categories – by dropping hooks to the ocean floor off of Antarctica in the middle of winter.
That is how, where, and when we catch Chilean sea bass.
Sustainable fishing simply cannot occur in an area and at a depth that is so obviously a reaction to an overblown and exhausted food system — a food system that, because of its inability to balance itself, has cantilevered out into dangerous extremes. The very existence of a Chilean sea bass fishery is in itself evidence of an unsustainable fishing paradigm. To label a Chilean sea bass fishery sustainable only serves as evidence to the contrary, as the claim itself underscores our failure to grasp and to apply the true meaning of sustainability to our seafood industry.
title=”parade-featured” src=”http://www.sustainablesushi.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/parade-featured-300×159.jpg” alt=”Cherry blossoms: the best time of year in DC.” width=”300″ height=”159″/>
Cherry blossoms: the best time of year in DC.
A quick heads-up for all the sustainable sushi fans in the DC area:
In partnership with the DC Cherry Blossom Festival, National Geographic, and Genji Sushi, I will be speaking at a sustainable sushi dinner this coming Wednesday evening at 7pm. I know this is last minute, but as I write this there are still about 30 or 40 tickets left so I wanted to make sure the information was available. Sorry I didn’t put this up on the website sooner.
Anyhow, the menu is spectacular — Miki Willis, the executive chef of Genji, has done remarkable work. Her dinner showcases the principles of sustainable sushi (such as the 4-S Rule, local awareness, and deference to precautionary science) and promises to be a great evening.
1st Course 冷菜／Appetizer Katsuo Tataki Namerou Kyuri Gunkan/seared Skipjack spicy Miso tartar on a rice cracker, wrapped around with a cucumber strip
3rd Course 汁物／Soup Kani & Eryngii Tonyu Jiru/Blue Crab and King Oyster Mushroom in soy milk Miso soup
4th Course 旬野菜３品盛合わせ／Local Seasonal Produce Sampler
* Negi & Hotate Nuta/sauteed Leek and seared Scallop with vinegared Japanese mustard Miso
* Beet & Hotate Umezu Ae/roasted Beets and fresh Scallop with Japanese Plum vinegar dressing
* Kale & Hotate Himo Kurumi Ae/blanched Kale and simmered Scallop Adductor with creamy Walnut sauce
5th Course 焼き物・揚げ物／Grilled and Fried
* Sawara Syouga Miso Yaki, Nama Shichimi/grilled ginger Miso marinated Spanish Mackerel with fresh made Japanese Seven Spice
* Murasaki-Imo Tempura, Yakumi/Purple Sweet Potato tempura with tempura sauce, grated radish and chive as condiments
* Shishito Su-Age/oil blanched Shishito Green Chili Pepper
The ocean is mysterious. It has obscured many of our planet’s most fantastic treasures from view since time immemorial, tucking them away in remote tropical waters, or hiding them deep beneath the white-capped fangs of raging polar seas. Sadly, many of these wonders are threatened by unbridled fishing pressure, deluges of castaway plastics, and a simple but devastating characteristic that, more than anything else, could guarantee their destruction: anonymity.
In this installment of “4 Oceans,” we’ll take a look at four astonishing marine marvels that most people have never heard of, and then discuss how these delicate ecosystems are under threat and what we as consumers can do to protect them.
He's a little crabby about the trawlers in his backyard
1. Zhemchug Canyon
Zhemchug (“pearl” in Russian) is the longest, widest and deepest canyon in the world. Its total volume is nearly twice that of the Grand Canyon. It is vast beyond description and teems with fascinating organisms. It is also hundreds of fathoms underwater.
Zhemchug, sprawling southwest from the Alaskan shore and deep into the Bering Sea, is home to dozens of soft corals, sponges and other invertebrates found nowhere else in the world. Only in the last five years have scientists have begun to plumb the depths of Zhemchug, and we still have virtually no information on what marvels it may conceal. That said, time is already running out.
Every year, the Alaskan pollock fleet rakes Zhemchug repeatedly with gigantic trawl nets in its relentless quest for fish protein (pollock is the low-value, high-volume fish often used to make products like fish sticks and fast-food fish sandwiches). While there is an argument for using pollock in our food system, there is no excuse for pulverizing Zhemchug Canyon (or its neighbor, Pribilof Canyon) to get it.
The pollock fishery covers thousands upon thousands of square miles outside of the canyons, and the vast majority of pollock is caught in these areas rather than Zhemchug or Pribilof. Pollock producers and companies that sell pollock products must commit to sourcing their pollock from outside the canyons if these amazing treasures are to survive.
To help protect Zhemchug Canyon: Avoid pollock products until leading seafood companies pledge only to source pollock from outside of the canyons, and then support those companies.
2. The Ross Sea
The Ross Sea, a remote, half-frozen dent in the side of Antarctica, is aptly nicknamed the ”the Last Ocean” — it is the only remaining oceanic ecosystem on our planet with a relatively intact animal population at all levels of the food chain. Elsewhere in the world, the ocean’s apex predators — sharks, bluefin tuna, swordfish, etc. — have been fished to the point of near-collapse. After nearly a century of industrialized fishing, the Ross is the only remaining sea that still has a strong top-level predator population.
The Last Ocean
The Ross Sea has no sharks. Instead, the food chain is dominated by two predators: the Antarctic toothfish and the Ross Sea orca. The toothfish, more commonly known by its menu-friendly moniker “Chilean sea bass” is the largest fish in the Ross Sea and a lynchpin of its ecosystem. The Ross Sea orca is a rare and isolated subspecies of killer whale found nowhere else in the world. Both species are under threat.
The Ross Sea is under increasing pressure by an emerging fishery targeting Antarctic toothfish. In order to satisfy a hunger for Chilean sea bass fillets, ships are now beginning to enter the last pristine ocean in search for white-fleshed plunder. Chilean sea bass is also a prime prey item for the Ross Sea orca, and recent science has identified a correlation between decreasing Antarctic toothfish populations and a diminishing orca presence.
To protect the Ross Sea: avoid Chilean sea bass, especially from the Ross Sea. Also, don’t be fooled by certifications — astonishingly, the Ross Sea toothfish fishery is Marine Stewardship Council-certified.
3. Palmyra Atoll
Cast far into the Pacific like a stone that has lost a child’s interest, Palmyra Atoll is a tropical wonderland upon which humanity has taken a sort of self-serving pity. Once privately owned by a wealthy American family, Palmyra was purchased some time ago by the Nature Conservancy in an effort to safeguard this virtually untouched ecosystem for study and posterity, and the atoll still boasts strong populations of many species that are disappearing from other areas of the tropics at astonishing rates.
It's me or the SUV
Unfortunately, localized precautions cannot forestall a larger creeping doom that threatens to swallow Palmyra like a massive turtle — the menace of global climate change.
As we pump carbon into our atmosphere, we increase the rate at which our polar ice caps melt and give these areas less time to re-freeze in the winter. As such, water that had been frozen for eons is now streaming into the ocean, causing global sea levels to rise. A few vertical inches can spell the end for atolls like Palmyra, which is just one of the many sandbank jewels scattered about our world that may not survive to see the coming decades.
To save Palmyra: the best we can do is support clean energy efforts, limit our consumption of fossil fuels, and keep the climate crisis in mind as we go about our daily lives.
4. The Sargasso Sea
The world’s only “sea without shores” is geographically defined not by a neighboring land mass, but rather by the spatial dimensions of its own ecosystem. There is no other expanse of ocean like the Sargasso; a unique conflux of swirling currents, temperate weather, and the calming winds of the horse latitudes has given rise to an enormous morass of Sargassum seaweed. This vast aquatic jungle is the basis of an entire ecology involving dozens of species found nowhere else in the world.
It's a jungle down there
Between the leafy sea dragons, pipefish and man-o-war peppering the Sargasso swim American and European freshwater eels, known in the sushi industry as unagi. These animals hatch in the waters of the Sargasso and are slowly swept along by the currents of the Atlantic Ocean. When the tiny eels enter water with decreased salinity — due to a nearby river mouth — they transform, developing muscles and the ability to propel their bodies through the water. These eels — now known as “elvers” — swim directly upriver, where they feed, grow and mature. They will spend their life in fresh water until they reach adulthood, whereupon they leave the river system and return to the Sargasso Sea to mate. All freshwater eels from both sides of the North Atlantic come to the Sargasso, and nowhere else, for this purpose.
But the Sargasso is in trouble. Not only are eels themselves severely overfished (that unagi at your local sushi bar may be “farmed,” but in reality, it was captured from the wild as an elver and transferred to a rearing facility for fattening), but the greedy eddies of the Sargasso attract massive amounts of jetsam from all over the Atlantic, especially plastic and container waste, which disrupt the ecosystem and hinder many animals’ ability to feed.
To help save the Sargasso: avoid unagi, and be judicious about the use of plastic bags and other refuse that often ends up in the oceans.
Osashiburi! Long time no see; it’s nice to be back.
I apologize for my unannounced and prolonged absence from this blog. Real life caught up with me and I was forced to de-prioritize this project in favor of any number of other obligations. I’m happy to say, however, that from this point forward, sustainablesushi.net is back in business.
There’s all sorts of interesting news on the eco-sushi front that took place while I was napping, so I’m a bit behind the 8-ball right now. That said, I have a slew of posts and articles coming this way in the next few months, so we should be in good shape relatively soon.
There are a few items that I should mention:
At least for the time being, this blog will no longer have a regular update schedule (as if it ever did.) Articles will materialize here as is feasible and appropriate. For regular readers, I highly suggest using the RSS feed so you are alerted when there is a new post. You can subscribe to the RSS feed by clicking on the RSS button that appears at the top of a post page – just click on the headline of an any blog post and go from there.
Yeah, well, at least it makes things easier to find
There will be some interesting cross-posting and guest posting. Some of the key media outlets participating in this project include alternet.org, markbittman.com, greenpeace.org, and others. I’m excited to start this new venture and I hope you all enjoy it as well.
There’s a big serial piece coming your way. I’m not sure when it will drop – it’s a long one and I still have quite a bit of work to do on it – but it’ll happen eventually. It has to do with a recent two-week journey that Chef Hajime Sato and I took through Japan.
4) Even though the blog was down for the past several months, the individual fish recommendations are all still up to date as far as I know. There are some big updates coming soon, though, so stay tuned.
That... took... forever
I am sure that some of my readership has moved on during my absence, and I appreciate those of you who stuck around long enough to be reading this post now. As always, I appreciate your comments and suggestions more than you know and would love to hear any ideas or thoughts you may have about how to keep this website interesting, informative, and enjoyable.
By now most people have heard of Paul the psychic octopus, the prognosticating cephalopod that presaged the outcome of the 2010 World Cup. Paul, a caged male common octopus (Octopus vulgaris: the same species as the takoat your local sushi bar) at Sea Life Aquarium in Oberhausen, Germany, managed to successfully predict the winners of eight consecutive soccer matches – most of which involved the German national team – by eating a mussel from one of two small plastic boxes. Each box was draped with the flag of one of the upcoming competitors, and Paul was allowed to choose between the two at his leisure. Paul’s choices were accurate in all cases.
A statistician would tell you that the odds of an octopus predicting the correct outcome of a soccer match eight out of eight times are 255:1, or 0.39%. Then, of course, another statistician would tell you that this would be true of any sequence of choices that the octopus made, correct or otherwise. At this point a third statistician would remind you that regardless of the choices that the octopus had previously made, the chances of him accurately choosing the winner of any one game, World Cup Final or not, is exactly 50%. Then you’d probably get bored and go do something more interesting than listen to a group of statisticians talk about an octopus.
Gimme ten bucks on Paul
Oddly, the world at large did not get bored. In fact, just the opposite occurred. The buzz surrounding Paul and his alleged clairvoyance grew to such a level that in the final match, bookies could actually see a shift in betting patterns immediately after the octopus ransacked his chosen mussel box.
Others are not as reverent. The Germans, in particular, have loudly and repeatedly called for Paul’s blood (which is blue, by the way… octopuses use hemocyanin to carry oxygen rather than the hemoglobin many other animals use, and thus they end up with blue blood instead of red). Many indignant German soccer fans are demanding that the octopus be grilled, barbecued, or otherwise ritually killed and consumed for predicting Germany’s upset loss to Serbia.
The octopus is not the issue here, dude
I’m digressing. This isn’t supposed to be about the octopus, or the fans, or soccer. For me, the most compelling piece of this ridiculous story is the conceptual angle – the fact that we find ourselves opening our minds to the possibility that the ocean may have produced something that is far beyond our comprehension.
Paul’s feat reminds us that there is a tremendous amount of wonder and mystery in the sea. We have learned enough about the complex ecosystems of this planet to realize that there are any number of potential superfoods, magic bullets, and cures for cancer hiding in their midst; we just haven’t found them all yet. The ocean is no exception. We have no idea what marvels are down there, hiding in the depths.
Last month, at Jacques Cousteau’s posthumous 100th birthday celebration, the great ocean explorer’s grandson Fabian reiterated the popular adage that “we still know more about outer space than we do about the deep ocean.” While I’m not certain how we can qualitatively prove this statement, the thrust of it is what’s important: we are still incredibly ignorant when it comes to deep ocean ecosystems. Unfortunately, this has not stopped us from causing untold damage to these unexplored realms — and there is little more damaging to the ocean than bottom trawling.
Bottom trawls are weighted nets that are used by fishing vessels to ensnare species that live along the floor or the ocean. These nets are dragged along the seabed, pulverizing corals and causing tremendous damage to reefs, invertebrates, and rocky habitats. Given that the total area of ocean floor trawled each year is twice the square mileage of the United States, we’re no doubt causing serious trouble for countless animals that live amongst the stones and eelgrass. The mortality rate of bottom trawling – that is, the percentage of impacted animals that are killed by these nets – is extremely high, often surpassing 90%. Many of these creatures aren’t desirable from a strict economic perspective, and are tossed overboard as soon as they’re pulled up. This carnage is known as bycatch, and some trawlers (especially tropical shrimpers) have been known regularly to haul up nets with bycatch outnumbering the targeted species by over ten to one. For every pound of shrimp these boats catch, over ten pounds of other animals – fish, invertebrates, etc. – are pitched over the side, already dead.
Imagine the scale of waste and destruction that the global trawling enterprise precipitates on a daily basis – the loss of life, the destruction of habitat… it’s staggering. In exchange for a short-run profit bump, these trawlers ride roughshod over the deep like the horsemen of some marine apocalypse. Who knows what miracles we may have already lost to their greed and indifference?
Land of opportunity
While I haven’t yet made up my mind about whether or not I believe that Paul does indeed have some sort of extra-sensory perception, I am grateful to him for reminding us all that there is so much that we still don’t understand hiding beneath the waves. Psychic octopus or not, it doesn’t matter – the important thing is to realize that is that we can’t afford to sacrifice the immeasurable potential of the deep for a few extra dollars in the here and now.
Life is full of mysteries. Some, like Paul, can bring great joy and wonder. Others may take a bit more exploration to unlock, but could be even more dazzling. If we don’t reign in our destructive practices, though, we may never find out.
In his talk, Trenor uses the topic of sustainable sushi to explore the connection between personal passion and effective activism. Trenor's perspective is that true change is not something which we can impose upon the world, but rather something which me must manifest in ourselves and allow it to be reflected in who we are and what we do.