The Curse of the Black Box

Gratuitously gratuitous

Gratuitously gratuitous

Have you ever seen one of those high-budget crime flicks where a bunch of slick dudes go out and rob a bank?

It starts with a group of chiseled Hollywood 30-somethings cocooned in tailored suits, driving fancy cars and armed with enough sexy crime tech to make even the most jaded geek swoon.  There’s the compulsory uber-coolness sequence where they’re slow-motion strutting out of a building, all wearing expensive shades and silk ties, oozing style.  Then there’s the heist scene, a spitfire collage of action shots and staccato sound effects that raises your heart rate and stretches your eyelids up past your forehead.  Finally, the smoke clears on an empty bank vault, with a bunch of bumbling police officers looking at one another in confusion, and their mustachioed, hard-boiled lieutenant staring into the middle distance, clenching his jaw in impotent fury.

Invariably, these smooth criminals now need to liquidate their ill-gotten gains so they can flee to some non-extradition paradise festooned with string bikinis and mai tai umbrellas.  Problem is, the cash is easily traceable – so they go for something else.

Bearer bondsRaw diamondsPostage stamps.  They find one of those funny ways to steal money that won’t get them reeled in by Interpol or by some twitchy, obsessive FBI agent that has willfully exceeded his jurisdiction in order to bring his better-looking, cooler, and smarter nemeses to justice.  Finally, there’s the scene at the bar of the expensive resort in Montenegro or Caracas, where the government agent sidles up to the criminal and informs him that sure, he’s out of his jurisdiction, but he knows what’s going on and will make sure that so-and-so suffers for his misdeeds….

That's the stuff

That's the stuff

… sorry, I’m digressing.  I meant to stop at the point where I said “bearer bonds.”

The reason I’m bringing this up is because there’s a point of commonality here between this stamped cellulose lucre and much of the fish that one can find everyday at the local sushi bar.  Both are, for the purposes of everyday commerce, untraceable.

Much of the seafood swirling about the sushi industry chain of custody is “black box” fish.  It passes through so many hands, is processed and repackaged so many times, and languishes in the bellies of so many cargo planes that its history is lost.  Discerning where the fish is actually from becomes an impossible task.  When they’ve finally finished ricocheting around the planet, these poor animals have accumulated enough frequent flyer miles to upgrade to first class on that final trip to your dinner plate.

That was yesterday -- where are you from today?

Living in the present

International labeling laws tend to make things even worse.  Generally, a fish product is only required to list the last point at which there was value-addition (a change in formatting – repackaging, processing, cooking, etc.) This process wipes out and redrafts the history of the fish as if it were on etch-a-sketch in the hands of a kindergartener with ADHD.

Thus do we have fish landing on sushi counters without any indication of their checkered pasts.  A good example is the ubiquitous tako, the mottled purple octopus whose severed tentacles adorn sushi bars across the planet.

This precise Japanese term for this species of octopus (Octopus vulgaris) is madako, or “true octopus.”  This multi-limbed wonder is caught all over the world, but some of the most productive fishing is traditionally done off the coast of North Africa in Moroccan, Mauritanian, and Senegalese waters.

Swimming towards ignominy

The problem here (beyond the fact that this octopus is largely bottom trawled from flagging populations with little management) is that the world’s tako chain of custody bottlenecks in Japan.  Octopus is not simply yanked out of the water to be immediately slapped down on a sushi bar, as is the case with numerous other fish.  Rather, octopus has to be properly blanched, seasoned, and packaged for travel.  This takes place in Japan, where there is an entire industry based around octopus processing.  The world’s octopus trawl fleets capture the animals, kill them, and ship them off to Japan where they are all mixed together in enormous processing facilities.  The octopus is prepared for use in sushi through a method that involves hot water, vinegar, and copious amounts of plastic.  This process strips each octopus of its individuality, creating an amorphous melange of tentacles that is then re-exported and disseminated to sushi bars throughout the world, bearing stickers that read: “Product of Japan.”

But it’s not really from Japan, is it?  And by the time it arrives in the United States, neither the broker who imported the octopus, the seafood distributor who trucked it to a restaurant, nor the chef who chopped it up for a salivating sushi fan is able to trace it to its source.  Any knowledge of original home of the octopus has been lost, wiped from history as cleanly as a child’s carefree sand scrawls are erased by a rising tide.

Octopus Anonymous

Octopus Anonymous

So if we need to know the original source of the fish to determine stock status and management rigor, and we need to know about stocks and management to determine the sustainability of a given seafood option, how do we deal with tako and other black box products?  How can we make educated choices to promote sustainable fisheries if we can’t even tell where the fish is from?

This is the curse of the black box.  It is a general dearth of information at the final point of sale that is enabled by ineffective trade protocol and labeling laws.  It is a black hole languishing in the center of the world of seafood, drawing shipping receipts, landing logs, and other data into its gravity well, engaged in a perpetual implosion that disposes of fact and history more efficiently than an armada of paper shredders set upon the National Archives.

It falls upon us to apply the precautionary principle in these situations.  If we cannot adequately defend a hypothesis stating that the dish is a sustainable option, we must assume the opposite.  A precautionary approach to our marine resources will allow us to protect our planet by giving our oceans, rather than the fishing industry, the benefit of the doubt.  This is how we avenge the dodo.

Pandora's box?

Pandora's box

Below is a non-exhaustive list of sushi items that commonly fall into the black box:

Tako (Octopus)
Anago (Sea eel)
Unagi (Freshwater eel)
Tobiko (Flying fish roe)
Toro (Bluefin tuna belly)
Kanikama (Surimi)
Sazae (Conch)

Processing bottlenecks, weakness in labeling, and IUU (pirate) fishing all contribute to the strength and volume of the black box.  Consumer patronage of black box seafood has an extremely detrimental impact on our oceans.  Please exercise extreme caution when considering any of the above options at the sushi bar.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments

Marco Pinchot
Aug 21, 2009 at 3:50 pm

Thanks for this fine essay Casson. This reinforces for me that there can be no meaningful sustainability certification without full chain of custody transparency. We are only going to see alternative tako processors or distributors who are able to report accurate chain of custody, when the certification programs are able to offer an advantage in the marketplace. So in a way, we have a catch 22. The solution as I see it is to work to establish and grow sustainability certification programs, emphasizing chain of custody reporting, for the fisheries and farmed products that still have plenty of marketplace choice and with the products that already have solid chain of custody (like Shellfish, which are tracked because of health regulations). Once we can establish a market place advantage for these certified fish and customers start demanding more types of fish we might even start to see alternative processors of certified tako that can be tracked from fisherman to sushi bar.


 
Casson
Aug 21, 2009 at 5:46 pm

Marco –

Thanks for the comment. I think you have identified a sensible long-term solution, but I’m curious — in the short-term, would you have any suggestions for traceable, sustainable seafood items that are not currently popular in the US sushi market, but could be potentially used to round out menus should sushi chefs start removing black box seafood items?


 

Reply

I Love Blue Sea Banner Graphic

Copyright © 2014 SustainableSushi.net. All Rights Reserved.
Original Theme by Lorelei Web Design.