Mysteries of the deep

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 tako at 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 whatever the octopus said

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.

Paul has received international acclaim as well as the adoration of Spaniards everywhere.  The clever little mollusk was a given miniature World Cup trophy as well as honorary citizenship in a small Spanish town. The Madrid Zoo has promised the octopus a life of sultanesque luxury should Sea Life be interested in selling him – an offer which the German aquarium has repeatedly rebuked. Sea Life may soon change its tone, however, now that a cadre of Russian bookmakers has offered 100000 Euros for the octopus.

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.

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    The 4-S Rule

    I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by a team from CNN on sustainability issues in the sushi industry. This clip is me explaining what I call the “4-S rule” – a simple, if somewhat crude, guide to eating in a more sustainable fashion at the sushi bar (oh, and a small correction to CNN’s byline – I am a co-founder of Tataki Sushi Bar, but I don’t actually own the restaurant.)


    As I discuss in the video, there are four adjectives, each starting with the letter S, that form the eponymous rule. If a sushi bar patron bears these descriptors in mind while he or she orders, it can markedly diminish the environmental footprint created by dinner. This is not a perfect system – there are exceptions to each of the four “S” words – but by and large, it does help one to order a more sustainable sushi meal overall.

    Skipjack tuna served nigiri-style with gobo, scallions, and a shiso leaf. The skipjack is the smallest tuna found in the sushi industry, and has both the lowest average mercury content and the highest reproduction rate.

    The first word is SMALL. Smaller fish are generally lower on the trophic scale (food chain), grow more quickly, die younger, and breed in larger numbers. These biological survival tactics are employed by many fish to help them withstand heavy predation — they play the numbers game and simply create as many offspring as possible so a few manage to escape the yawning maws of hungry predators.  In essence, these are the kind of fish that are designed to be fed upon. Their physiology and population dynamics are generally more resilient to our fishing pressure and protein demand than top-of-the-food-chain carnivores, such as large tunas, swordfish, and sharks. Moreover, smaller fish generally have less mercury accumulation in their systems than these apex predators due to their shorter life spans and less voracious appetites.

    Examples: Sardines (iwashi), skipjack tuna (katsuo), horse mackerel (aji)

    Wild coho salmon, sashimi-style. Alaskan coho is well managed, healthy for consumers, and seasonally available.

    The next word is SEASONAL. Seasonality is key to sustainability. If we are to reduce our carbon dependency and rekindle our connection with the ocean, we need to be more aware of where we are and what time of year it is when we order our fish. A good rule of thumb is to order off the specials board rather than the laminated menu when possible – any items on a year-round menu are unlikely to be sourced on a basis of seasonal awareness. It was our demand that certain intrinsically seasonal products be available to us year-round that gave rise to environmental missteps like conventional salmon farming. This category also offers us the added opportunity to take advantage of seasonal vegetables and fruits, which innovative chefs often incorporate into their specials.

    Examples: Wild salmon (sake), Dungeness crab (kani), spot prawns (ama ebi),

    Pacific saury prepared over wood charcoal.  Saury are a cold-water schooling forage fish and have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

    Pacific saury prepared over wood charcoal. These cold-water schooling forage fish have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

    The third word is perhaps the most surprising – SILVER. Eat sushi that is served with a silver skin still on it. This category of fish is known as hikari mono in Japanese, and contains mackerels, halfbeaks, shads, and similar fish. These animals tend to be loaded with omega-3s as well as being low in mercury, and can be sourced from many well-managed fisheries. An added bonus is that the hikari mono are some of the most treasured fish in the repertoire of a traditional sushi chef; a menu featuring these items will often prove to be an unforgettable culinary experience.  I highly encourage all sushi-goers to explore the world of hikari mono – you just may find your new “absolute ultimate all-time favorite” sushi item.

    Examples: Mackerel (saba), Pacific saury (sanma), Spanish mackerel (sawara),

    Kumomoto oysters on the half-shell with momoji oroshi. Oysters are high in protein and easy to raise in low-impact farms.

    The final word is SHELLFISH, and I’m speaking specifically of bivalves and mollusks. Not only are these creatures excellent sources of protein, but they are considered by many to be delicacies and aphrodisiacs. Bivalve and mollusk aquaculture has sound environmental benefits as well: it tends to involve relatively low-impact farming methods when compared to other types of fish farming, such as tuna ranches or salmon farms. As filter-feeders, animals like clams, scallops, and oysters can be grown without the use of any additional feed.  This reduces their dependence on marine resources and eliminates the kind of inefficient protein use that we find in operations like hamachi and unagi ranches.  These mollusks also grow quickly, and can be raised in cages and bags that require no dredging or other types of seabed alteration during harvest.

    Examples: Oysters (kaki), mussels (muurugai), geoduck (mirugai)

    That’s about the size of it. Small, seasonal, silver, and shellfish – a quick-and-dirty road map to a more eco-groovy sushi experience. There are, as I mentioned earlier, numerous exceptions to this rule, but it serves as a fairly reliable lodestone for those who are interested in shifting their sushi dining habits toward a more sustainable paradigm.

    Oh, and one final quip: as it happens, the letter S occurs exactly four times in the term “sustainable sushi.” Remember that to keep the 4-S rule in mind.

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    October 24th

    Sustainable Sushi is an environmental website.  Although it is primarily focused on marine issues, it should be used from time to time to acknowledge those topics that transcend the ocean’s surface and reach beyond the boundary of the surf. One such issue is global climate change.

    As you may be aware, October 24th was the International Day of Climate Action.  In over 100 countries across the planet, people of all ages, races and creeds came together to demonstrate their desire for strong and timely leadership on climate change.

    From the Pyramids of Egypt to the reefs below the waters of the sinking Maldives, concerned world citizens displayed signs that read “350″ (the level of carbon, in parts per million, that can be sustained in the atmosphere without causing climate change… we’re currently around 394).

    I encourage everyone to visit and witness the amazing displays of enthusiasm and commitment that climate change advocates around the world demonstrated last Saturday.

    For the next generation... the Houks, the Torrettos, and everyone else too

    As for me, I spent October 24th sequestered at a dear friend’s wedding in the remote town of Jemez Springs, New Mexico… but still, we managed to express our feelings on the subject.

    Climate change is happening.  It is real, it is devastatingly powerful, and it is truly the great challenge of this generation.  Join the global movement.  We can arrest climate change and restore our environment, but we must work together.

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    The Cove

    One of the most important things that we can do for the planet this weekend is as simple as treating ourselves to a movie.

    The United States is dotted with parks and facilities that ostensibly exist to celebrate the beauty of the ocean and its inhabitants.  While I won’t name names, I’m talking about those grandiose, concrete-bunker tourist abominations that allow patrons contrived splash-zone experiences with kidnapped cetaceans.  Porpoises, dolphins, and even orca are included in these marine circus acts.  We watch the animals leaping through hoops and frantically clicking for their daily mackerel fix, all the while remaining blissfully ignorant of how these animals came to arrive in their current situation.

    There is a ghastly, bloodthirsty force behind this calliope-and-carousel facade:  the dolphin capture industry.  It operates in a small, hidden bay outside Taiji, Japan, and it has finally been exposed for the monstrosity that it is by Louis Psihoyos’ new crime flick-cum-documentary, The Cove.

    Winner of numerous Audiences Awards around the world, including the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, Silver Docs and Hot Docs, The Cove follows an Ocean’s Eleven-style team of underwater sound and camera experts, special effects artists, marine explorers, adrenaline junkies and world-class free divers as they carry out an undercover operation to expose unspeakable cruelties that, in this tiny Japanese bay, have become a way of life.

    Utilizing state-of-the art techniques, including hidden microphones and cameras couched in fake rocks, the team uncovers how this small seaside village serves as a horrifying microcosm of massive ecological crimes happening worldwide. The Cove is the result of the team’s journey to Taiji: a provocative mix of investigative journalism, eco-adventure and arresting imagery that adds up to an urgent plea for hope.

    I urge all readers of this blog to see what the New York Times calls “one of the most audacious and perilous operations in the history of the conservation movement,” and what Rolling Stone describes as “a cross between Flipper and The Bourne Identity.”

    Witness the truth behind dolphin captivity, and help us bring this reprehensible, barbaric industry to its knees.

    For a complete listing of showtimes and locations, please click here.

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    The Art of Sushi – Part 3: Adeleine Daysor and the art inside your head

    I’m not usually the kind of person that would look at a scrap piece of wood too closely.  It wouldn’t catch my attention, and even if it did, I doubt I’d see more than its potential utility in construction or value to a beach bonfire.

    Of course, that changed after I met Adeleine Daysor.

    Daysor, 28, is a relatively new presence in the US art scene, having only recently arrived here from her home country of Singapore.  She uses pieces of scrap wood to create abstract sculptures that are largely open to interpretation, and then marries them to food.  It’s an odd relationship, and one that I didn’t fully understand at first, but have come to genuinely appreciate.  The fact is, with Daysor’s art, the sculpture is really not the point at all.

    Daysor gravitated to food imagery in her work because it was a way to transcend cultural differences.  Even though food around the world is different, everyone in every country does have to eat.  As such, there is no culture without food, nor is a there food without culture.

    "Wood-crab study" (watercolor on paper)

    When Daysor narrowed her focus from a broad spectrum of culinary interpretation to a more precise investigation of sushi and seafood, she was reacting to the materials she encountered rather than attempting to manifest an image that had already developed in her mind.  The pieces of wood that later would become the physical presence of her pieces imposed themselves upon her imagination, rather than the other way around.  What makes Daysor unique is that she strives to allow her viewers this same opportunity.

    “I saw a crab in this block of wood, but someone else may see something different,” Daysor explains to me, “but not if I place my watercolor of the crab directly next to the wood block.  Then it’s a crab to everyone.”  This kind of orchestration, Daysor claims, leaves no space for art.

    "Is Everything on a plate, food? Is Everything on Rice, Sushi? Is Everything on a hook, Fish?" (scrap wood and cooked rice)

    "Is Everything on a plate, food? Is Everything on Rice, Sushi? Is Everything on a hook, Fish?" (scrap wood and cooked rice)

    This is one of the most interesting aspects of Daysor’s work.  She does not consider her sculpture, watercolor, or mixed media to be her art in its final sense.  Rather, the products of her effort are the images and emotions that the physical props conjure in an observer’s mind.  This approach lends itself to a feeling of fluidity and open-endedness that is often missing from the work of many artists.   Daysor seems to view the pieces she creates as stepping stones in a longer path of the viewer’s understanding or realization.  “A lot of what I’m dealing with is the history of items, objects, things,” she says.  “I put them together in different combinations that become an object, and that object starts its own history.  Objects are like culture, they evolve and change, but there’s always an origin, and I want people to think about that.”

    "Afternoon Tea" (mixed media)

    Daysor’s shows are interactive events.  They combine a smattering of actual, edible food with her sculptures and paintings, all of which depictions of food in various degrees of abstraction.  With little or no explanation given, Daysor’s show is similar to a zen initiate’s first taste of koan meditation.  In her effort to create fertile ground for personal reflection and interpretation, Daysor offers no guidance as to how the pieces should be approached or interpreted. The audience is immediately confronted with a pronounced sense of insecurity.

    There are paintings on the wall, but are they related to the sculptures on the pedestals?  If so, why aren’t they displayed together?  Not to mention — there is an abundance of edible food mixed in with the artwork, but is it supposed to be eaten?  Is the food being wasted?  What would happen if I ate it?

    "Salmon log cake" (Mixed media: wood sculpture with edible food)

    "Salmon Log Cake" (mixed media)

    Daysor smiles when I ask her about this.  “The first time the salmon log cake [a sculpture that flanks slices of real salmon with two pieces of wood that masquerade as salmon] was displayed, I offered it to be eaten, and people ate it.  Second time, I didn’t say no but didn’t say yes either, and no one ate it.”  She pauses for a moment before adding, “I think they didn’t eat it because the real food next to the constructed objects puts food outside its natural context.  Also, it’s playing with the rules – people don’t know if they can eat it, or should eat it, etc.”

    Daysor allows these questions to bloom in the minds of her viewers and to play themselves out in a natural progression.  Sometimes the food in her shows is consumed, sometimes it’s not. To Daysor, this is the core of her art.  Without free interpretation and participation to give depth to the piece, the work is merely two-dimensional.

    "Wood-prawn study" (watercolor on paper)

    To me, Daysor’s work echoes one of the most fascinating aspects of sushi, seafood, and the ocean in general: the sense of limitless potential and possibility.  The monsters that coil about the edges of ancient mariner’s maps were spawned from the same place that Daysor is urging her viewers to return to.  The reflective sheen atop the world’s oceans provides an optimal setting to nurture the imagination.  What incredible creatures and undiscovered treasures lie beneath the waves?

    Daysor’s work encourages us to believe in the wondrous nature of our world.  In order to ignite a passion for the ocean, one must truly believe in its magnificence.  The depth and mystery of the ocean is indeed indescribable, but we have largely allowed this awe to be supplanted by more pedestrian interpretations of the ocean (like fish sticks, for example.)

    What do you see?

    It doesn’t matter if I see the same thing that you see in a given piece of wood or a passing cloud.  What matters is that we open ourselves to whatever blossoms in our imagination.  I am not satisfied with the idea that the entire world will be force-fed a single interpretation of our ocean.  As I said — that way lies fish sticks.

    We need our passion, our hope, and our powers of imagination all operating at full capacity if we are to save our planet.  We need the ability to visualize an answer, to work together, and to believe in ourselves.  We have to challenge the paradigm that got us into this mess, and anyone that can use a forlorn, castaway piece of wood to fuel their creativity is on the right track.

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    The End of the Line

    On Friday the 19th, I was invited to participate in a short Q&A session directly following the release of The End of the Line, a new documentary about the state of our oceans, at a movie theater in the East Village.

    Even though Greenpeace has been engaging in rigorous cross-promotional efforts with the producers of this film, including campaigning against Nobu restaurant and taking to the water to expose the repugnant activities of bluefin tuna pirates, this was the first time I actually saw the movie in its entirety… and I’m now more convinced than ever that it merits our unconditional support.

    The End of the Line is a masterful work that details one man’s crusade to save our world’s oceans.  The author and subject of the documentary, Charles Clover, found his love of the ocean as many of us do: at the end of a line.

    While fishing in Wales, Clover snagged a very lonely salmon – a salmon that turned out to be the last one ever caught in that river.  Overfishing, rampant development, pollution, and habitat loss have combined forces to annihilate a population that once made annual pilgrimages to the Welsh highlands.

    After witnessing the melancholy fade-out of this salmon run, Clover began to ask that simple question that so many of us are struggling so mightily to ignore:  Why are our fish disappearing?  His quest to find an answer became an odyssey that took him from Senegal to Tokyo and a thousand points in between.

    You should see my older brother

    You should see my older brother

    The movie is replete with dazzling imagery; shots of Almadraba, a traditional bluefin tuna hunt undertaken by Spanish fishermen in the Strait of Gibraltar capture the true vitality and power of this regal animal.  During the sequence, I overheard a woman in front of me convey her astonishment over the bluefin’s massive size to her companion in hushed expletives.

    The irony is that the bluefin pictured in The End of the Line aren’t large at all… maybe 150 pounds. Just a short decade or two ago, there still were bluefin swimming about that had reached sizes closer to their true potential – upwards of 600 pounds.  That’s three or four times larger than the “massive” fish in the movie.

    Our baselines have shifted.  Aside from the wrinkled old seadogs that haunt the docks of towns like Gloucester, MA, no one remembers a truly gargantuan bluefin.  No one remembers that there used to be alligators in Chesapeake Bay.  No one remembers the true nature of a healthy ocean.

    "When I was your age..."

    "When I was your age..."

    A number of aging fishermen appear throughout the film, underscoring this issue by weaving an old salts’s lament into the story.  With their greybeard perspective and sun-stroked skin, these old men of the sea decry the waste and rapacity of the modern fishing industry, citing our rampant overfishing as a glaring example of today’s generation cutting its own throat in search of a quick dollar.

    Near the conclusion of the film, an unnamed woman sums up the problem when she smiles into the camera and candidly delivers the line, “I like to eat fish.  To me, fish are food.”

    Fish food

    Fish food

    Those who have read some of my previous articles and blog entries on this subject know that I do not necessarily dispute this statement.  I don’t have a problem with the concept of a human being feeding on a fish.  The problem arises with the strange assumption that once an animal is relegated to the status of “food,” it no longer merits any kind of respectful treatment.  It does not deserve to be treated as a living thing; rather, it exists for the lone purpose of one day graduating to the status of fish finger, salmon burger, or 2-piece nigiri plate.

    Speaking to this issue (albeit somewhat indirectly) is Dr. Daniel Pauly, a UBC professor who is prominently featured throughout the movie.  Pauly is one of the most well-known fisheries scientists in the world.  He speaks at conferences and symposia in cities across the globe.  The particularities of his theories are often disputed within academia, but no one would deny the man’s brilliance and devotion to the planet.

    At one point during the film, Pauly offers a frighteningly simple answer to Clover’s overarching question about the fate of the world’s fish.  When Clover asks, “Where are the fish going?, Pauly responds, “We are eating them!”

    Bad to the bone

    Fish may be food to some, but that does not mean that they are not still fish first and foremost, living organisms with which humans have a delicate and complex relationship.  This relationship is being abused to a terrifying extreme.  Factory trawlers, dynamite fishers, bluefin tuna pirates, absurdly greedy corporations (et tu, Mitsubishi?) and corrupt politicians have stretched the ability of our oceans to nurture healthy fish populations to the breaking point.

    I beseech all those who read this message to make a point of seeing The End of the Line as soon as possible.  It depicts the reality of the state of our oceans better than this blog ever could.

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    The Art of Sushi – Part 2: The Plastic World of Alicia Escott

    Alicia Escott: Artist, visionary, and trash collector

    Alicia Escott: Artist, visionary, and trash collector

    Most artists that use sushi imagery have purposefully selected the cuisine as something they want to incorporate into their artwork.  Something unique to sushi piqued their interest and compelled them to explore it from their own unique perspective.  Alicia Escott, however, began her interaction with the sushi world completely through happenstance.

    A graduate of the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago, Escott began her art career as a plein air painter, but soon found herself unsatisfied. An activist at heart, Escott painted her pieces with an environmentalist bent, but didn’t feel that her viewers were interpreting it that way.  Frustrated by this, Escott all but abandoned her painting and moved to San Francisco, intending to turn her back on her artistic side in favor of developing a career in sustainable business.  This was not to be, however – perhaps the fates weren’t about to allow such a talented artist to rob us of a gift that we so desperately needed.

    Looking for work and struggling to make ends meet, Escott found herself working at a grocery store that happened to house a sushi counter.  At the end of the day, the sushi that hadn’t been sold was distributed to hungry workers or thrown out.  This is the moment where Escott came face-to-face with her future medium – discarded plastic.

    "Pitch" (oil on plastic)

    Escott saw potential in incorporating this cast-off material into her work, and began to create energetic seascapes and vibrant animal imagery as her paint splayed across the matte black plastic cradle of someone’s rainbow roll.  Over time, Escott hit her stride and her work blossomed, belting out undeniable messages about the not-so-disposable nature of all that which we dismiss as “disposable.”  Her work drives home the staggering reality of the truth behind grocery sushi packaging: the fact that a hungry Safeway patron’s nigiri combo has a life expectancy of about 20 minutes, while the container holding it – whose ostensible purpose was solely to custodian the fish and rice to their grisly end – will likely persist for tens of thousands of years.

    “A New Day” (oil on plastic)

    Escott has utilized a number of different techniques in her work, including oils, pencil, and ink.  Many of her pieces are composed on single pieces of plastic, while others, like her mind-boggling “A New Day,” are arranged on large grids — in this case, a rising sun and seascape splashing across thirty discarded sushi containers.

    According to Escott, sushi has achieved an important place in her consciousness.  “Fish really exemplify what I’m trying to communicate,” she says.  “Consumers don’t know where they’re from, how they got here, or where they go… just like plastic.”

    "Drawing of the last wild California grizzly bear. 'Spotted several times in 1923 in Sequoia National Park and then never seen again.' Drawn on plastic mattress bags from Cisco Home for Sustainable Living. 'Handcrafted Furniture made in LA since 1992.' This drawing is slowly fading into obscurity. The plastic is currently not locally recyclable." (ink on plastic)

    That’s not to say that Escott’s expertise is limited to this little wasabi-and-soy universe.  She has a repertoire that draws on plastic in a multitude of forms, from discarded plastic bags and disposable containers to entire heavy-duty plastic sheets, every scrap of which was thrown away by its original owner.

    In fact, packaging in all forms, even beyond the tangible, intrigue her and draw from her imagination a myriad of poignant and groundbreaking pieces.  “Our whole lives are packaged,” Escott laments.  “Even a national park is ‘packaged’ in a way to make it accessible and appreciable… plastic is the epitome of this, you know?  It’s at once the most hygienic and the most ‘dirty’ thing.”

    "Salmon roll" (ink on plastic)

    To express her perspective on the concepts  of waste and packaging from a broader sense, Escott has created both massive and minuscule works, dwelling on detail and, most importantly, the ironic connection between her imagery and her material.  She pours countless hours of work into the artistic amelioration of items that most people would leave crushed and forgotten in a garbage can or on a city sidewalk.  In one of her pieces, several meticulously hand-rendered salmon struggle up a river that rushes along the creases of a crushed, discarded sushi lid.  The plastic still bears a faded sticker that reads: “Salmon roll.”  The salmon are frozen in time, rolling through whitewater that has been superimposed on the molted shell of one of their long-eaten relatives – a fish that, through the dubious miracle of plastic, has been frozen in time as well.

    "Untitled" (ink on plastic)

    The impact of this juxtaposition is redoubled by Escott’s masterful ability to convey a critical message: this plastic waste is a tremendous threat to the health of oceanic ecosystems.  As discarded plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, it forms “nurdles” – tiny particles that are invisible to the naked eye but that have the potential to persist in our environment for  thousands of years.  Nurdles find their way into streams and rivers which bear then onward until they reach the ocean.  These  microscopic poison pellets then saturate our waters and are subsequently devoured by unsuspecting filter-feeders.  Countless animals are killed by nurdles ever year, starving to death, unable to fit any digestible food into their full stomachs.  They are packed to the gills, as it were, with plastic.

    When confronted about the true purpose of her work, Escott gets a impish look and the corner of her mouth curls up mischeviously.  “I want to confuse the viewer,” she confesses.  “I want to bring home this cognitive dissonance between the disposable and the perpetual.  We at once accept these containers as ‘disposable,’ but at the same time, we’re aware that they will be around for thousands of years.”

    Well, I’m certainly confused.  As I write this, I’m about 30,000 feet above the Nevada desert, and I’ve just finished eating.  My food was, predictably, encased in a black-and-clear disposable plastic service, #1 PET plastic on #6 polystyrene, accompanied by the ubiquitous clear plastic airline cup.  But now that I’m finished with my meal, what do I do with the plastic?  I ponder my situation, turning the problem over and over in my head.  Given the continual failure among domestic airlines to incorporate recycling programs into their policies, anything I hand to the flight attendant for disposal is a strong candidate for nurdle-dom.  So how can I ensure that this anachronistic reminder of a fruit and cheese plate that I barely tasted doesn’t contribute to the demise of our planet?  How can I put the incredible longevity and persistence of my food’s erstwhile shield to good use?

    I guess I’ll give it to Alicia.

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    TV Spot — “10Connects”, Tampa Bay area, 5/7

    Buy cialis soft

    8_37582d” src=”×300.jpg” alt=”" width=”142″ height=”185″ />On May 7th, I had the opportunity to say a few words about sustainability and sushi alongside Dave Wirth, the anchor of Tampa Bay’s CBS affiliate, 10Connects. He was very genial and genuinely interested in the issue. It’s great to find that kind of support so far away from home. Check out the clip here!

    The best part of the whole thing was after the segment ended and we cut to Tammie Souza, the Chief Meteorologist — who proceeded to speak for at least thirty seconds about her experiences with and support for the seafood sustainability movement! Apparently she used to work closely with the Shedd Aquarium when she was based in Chicago. It was nice surprise and a great boost. Thanks Tammie!

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    The Art of Sushi – Part 1: Fish, Life, and Gayle Wheatley

    A simple truth of sushi is that it tends to involve fish.  A second simple truth is that, before they were nigiri or maki, these fish were living, breathing creatures.  Strangely, this latter axiom seems to pass unnoticed all too often.

    Luckily, we have Gayle to remind us.

    The gifted and lovely Gayle Wheatley.

    Gayle Wheatley is a well-known artist based in the Los Angeles area.  She is supremely talented and works in an impressive array of media, including oil on canvas, illustration, and graphic design.  Her work is displayed in numerous exhibitions and galleries around the world, and much of it has been snapped up by art collectors who lamentably discovered her before I did.

    Gayle spent two years living in Japan, and I’m guessing that this is at least part of what has inspired her to use sushi imagery in her work.  What interests me about Gayle’s art is her uncanny ability to depict the connection between sushi and life.

    I often find myself waxing on ad naseum about this subject: fish are alive.  Until they die, that is.  Or we kill them.

    This in itself isn’t a problem for me; rather, I’m concerned by the dubious understanding that we have of this connection on a subconscious level.  Consciously, sure, we know the sashimi on our plate is fish… but do we stop and think about how it was a fish, as well?

    We are hamachi.

    Picture this: you walk into your favorite sushi restaurant.  You order hamachi. You wait a few minutes, maybe savoring a steaming cup of green tea or sipping Sapporo from a pilsner glass.   A moment passes and a modest but smiling server approaches your table, places a small wooden block before you, and vanishes.  On the block, resting softly on a shizo leaf, are two loosely-molded lumps of rice topped with a couple of pieces of a rich, cream-colored flesh with light veins of red and pink streaking through it.  It is a beautiful dish, rich in its simplicity, evoking thoughts of freshness, purity, and delight.

    What it doesn’t make us think of is a fish.

    But I was hamachi first.

    Hamachi is a staple in the US sushi industry, but it is exceedingly rare in other sectors of our seafood landscape.  You won’t find hamachi at your local Safeway, WalMart, or Kroger; nor will you see one resting in the crushed ice of a high-end independent urban seafood market.  In fact, outside of a sushi bar, most Americans will never encounter a hamachi at all.

    Which means most sushi-goers have no idea what the living fish actually looks like.

    I find that it’s difficult to connect with something of which I have no tangible or visual appreciation, and fish are no exception.  These gaps between us and the animals that we consume allow us to feed upon them with less regard for what they once were.  Harmful fishing practices, filthy farming conditions, and even the ugly faces and off-putting monikers of particular fish are hidden to foster our ability to purchase in blissful ignorance at the point of sale.  Why else would merchants decide to change the name of the Patagonian toothfish to the Chilean seabass?  Or market the slimehead as “orange roughy”?

    (Speaking of that, have you ever seen a whole, head-on Chilean seabass displayed in a fish counter?  No?  Maybe it’s because they look like this.)

    This is a point of concern for me.  In my view, it is missing the point  to work towards sustainability in the fish industry if we do not reconcile our eating habits with the fact that fish are living creatures, not an amorphous commodity.  As long as we continue to to treat these animals as less than that (farming them in unsuitable conditions, filling them with drugs and dyes, devastating their habitat with destructive fishing gear, etc.), we will continually find ourselves struggling to reach sustainability.

    Gayle has managed to use sushi to portray these undersea organisms as the vivacious, mysterious, beating-heart marvels that they are.  Her vibrant, almost monstrous depictions of the animals “behind the sushi” strikes a chord with me.  Salmon roe sport teeth, similar to those they would have developed had they been allowed to hatch and mature.  A clutch of eels writhe and squirm against a nori yoke, struggling mightily to escape a hackneyed kabeyaki fate.  Cold- or warm-blooded, exo- or endo-skeletal, shelled or scaled, pelagic or benthic… it makes no difference.  Gayle’s work ably demonstrates that all of the ocean’s inhabitants merit our reverence, as does the amazingly complex ecosystem that they compose.

    It’s not about refusing to eat fish.  It’s about bringing our awareness of what we are actually eating to the table. Once the information is present, we can make defensible decisions as to what is right for us as individuals.  We can clearly delineate for ourselves what we will and will not consume.  This kind of consumption works in harmony with our own personal ethics, and I promise, fish tastes so much better that way.

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    Photos: Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar, January 13 2009

    San Francisco’s Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar is the first sustainable sushi restaurant in the world.  Here’s a little peek at what chefs Kin Lui and Raymond Ho are slinging:

    The sashimi plate in particular is an incredible example of what conscientious chefs can do with sustainable fish.  Clockwise from the top:

    • British Columbia trap-caught spot prawns as ama ebi
    • MSC-certified domestic albacore tuna from the North Pacific as shiromaguro
    • Handlined yellowfin tuna from Hawaii as maguro
    • Closed-containment farmed striped bass from California as suzuki
    • Suspension-farmed Hokkaido scallops as hotate
    • A few more slices of the same Hawaiian maguro
    • Farmed almaco jack from Hawaii as kanpachi
    • A lovely rose of closed-containment farmed arctic char from Washington State as iwana

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