License to krill

Mountingly meaningless

Increasingly meaningless

Two days ago, the gavel came down in an adjudication decision which may, more than any other recent hammer-strike, determine the future of fishing: The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) officially bestowed its blue-and-white fish-check label to a massive factory operator that targets Antarctic krill.

This is not a good thing.

Antarctic krill are tiny shrimp-like crustaceans that cluster in vast multitudes (known as “blooms”) in the waters of the Southern Ocean.  They form a critical building block in the oceanic food web: small fish consume the krill before being eaten themselves by seals, penguins, toothfish, and other animals.  Krill are also a primary source of nourishment for migratory whales — in fact, the majority of the world’s baleen whales journey to the southern ocean to feed on krill and replenish their energy supplies after depleting their reserves during their mating and calving seasons.

While krill in their vast numbers do seem on the surface to be an “inexhaustible resource,” one would hope that, by this time, we have learned that this mindless assumption will never be accurate in regard to any of the inhabitants of our finite planet.  There is no such thing as an inexhaustible resource.  Ask any great auk or passenger pigeon, they’ll tell you.

Oh, wait — you can’t ask them.

Because there aren’t any left.

Because there’s no such thing as an inexhaustible resource.

Trouble bath

Trouble bath

There are a few things that we are certain of about krill.  The first is that the tiny animal, like many other sea creatures — especially crustaceans — is vulnerable to climate change, especially through the ocean acidification trends resulting from the rising levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.  Nowhere in the Marine Stewardship Council certification system are the potential effects of climate change even discussed, let alone taken into account by the methodology.  Strike one.

Next, we know that Antarctic krill exist in the Southern Ocean – an area adjacent to a land mass that is uninhabited by humans.  The simple fact that we are sending fishing vessels into this area bespeaks an unsustainable paradigm, known as finite expansion.  There is a certain amount of ocean on this planet.  That we continue to fish farther, deeper, and longer simply underscores the fact that we are not approaching the management of our oceanic resources from a sensible and comprehensive standpoint that would account for the idea that one day – one day quite soon, actually – these fishing boats are going to bump up against the ice shelf.  No more expansion.  What then?  The Marine Stewardship Council methodology again fails to even consider these perspectives, concentrating instead on discrete management techniques that do not consider the idea that sustainability is more than a fishery-by-fishery label – it is a way of looking at the world.  Strike two.

A tiny mystery

Little critter, big mystery

Finally, we know that we have only a very rudimentary understanding these tiny animals.  Krill have been studied only cursorily and we have almost no knowledge of their life history and behavior.  It is irresponsible in the extreme to proceed with the certification of a fishery that is so cloaked in mystery – we have no idea what kind of damage we could be doing.  Strike three.

And yet in the face of all these worries, the rubber stamp comes down and the MSC pronounces the krill fishery to be sustainable.  Let’s not forget that vehement objections to this certification have already been lodged by the Pew Environment Group and the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition.  These objections were overruled — but let us not forget that the three strikes listed above were not taken into account in the decision, as they are simply not part of the MSC methodology… and if something isn’t part of the system, it apparently doesn’t have any relevance on reality.  Or so the adjudication decision would lead one to believe.

In search of pink gold

In search of pink gold

There is a conceptual concern here too.  The certification of this fishery gives an unofficial nod to the basic idea that vacuuming up the tiny life forms forming the foundations of the oceanic ecosystem is an acceptable practice.  In reality, it’s not.  Even the United States fishery management authorities banned fishing for krill in US waters, specifically to allow it to remain in the ocean as a food source for other organisms.  Legitimizing and expanding Antarctic krill fishing is simply transferring our unceasing resource demand to a hitherto unrecognized protein source.  This is not the way to move forward – in fact, pulling too hard on this loose yarn just might unravel the whole tapestry.

The certification of krill makes no sense.  It’s a minuscule building-block animal on the other side of the world that simply doesn’t belong to us.  We can’t even eat it – the krill will just be used to make oil, fish food, and other rendered products.  And for this, we may end up short-changing whales, toothfish, seals, and other animals – all because the powers that be refuse to look at the entire issue from a larger perspective.  Fishing for krill will not feed the world — but it just might end up starving it.

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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.

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Times of darkness

Can't take it anymore

The end is nigh

When the trials and tribulations of our modern age just get to be too much, people do different things to cope.  Henry David Thoreau moved to Walden Pond.  The Drifters went up on the roof.  Kurt Cobain ate the business end of a shotgun.

Personally, when I find myself frazzled and worn down by this age of rampant overfishing and the pronounced abuse of our ocean, I want to grab Father Time by his cold little cajones and order him to turn back the clock to a simpler age.

Back in the good old days – and I’m talking about Biblical Egypt here – we didn’t have to worry about things like seafood sustainability and ocean conservation.  It was enough to simply get through the day without being killed in battle, sacrificed to an animal-headed deity, or working your slaves to death while they built your pyramid.

We're here for the kamut

We're here for the kamut

But this carefree Golden Age didn’t last forever.  The ancient Egyptians eventually found themselves on the wrong side of an angry old-school God, who, in retaliation for the mistreatment that they had visited on their enslaved Jews, started pulling all sorts of nasty stuff out of his Bag of Lordly Vengeance.

Imagine the fear and confusion on the faces of the Egyptians when they found themselves smitten by one plague after another.  These river-dwelling elitists woke up to find locusts in the fields, frogs in their houses, darkness at noon and boils all over their bodies (the Bible doesn’t mention this final affliction occurring right before the Prom, but I’m sure that God took advantage of the timing.)

I, for one, had hoped that all of this divine retribution had run its course.  Unfortunately, 4000 years after Pharaoh let Moses’ people go, a plague with an undeniable Old Testament feel to it has struck the Western Pacific.

You've got to be kidding

You can't be serious

The seas of Southern Japan are boiling with giant poisonous jellyfish.  I’m not even joking about this.

Nomura’s jellyfish (echizen kurage in Japanese) is a formidable animal.  Able to exceed six feet in length and grow to a weight of over 400 pounds, this invertebrate is no spineless wimp.  These enormous cnidarians are massing in the East China Sea in greater numbers than ever previously recorded (even more than the great jellyfish invasion of 2005), forming a massive toxic flotilla that is gently drifting towards the Japanese coastline.

These humongous blobs are appearing in unheard of numbers.  Recent surveys averaged their density at 2.41 jellyfish per 100 sqm (up from 0.01 per 100 sqm in 2008).  And I’m not talking about square miles – that’s 2.4 jellyfish per 100 square meters.

Jelly jam

Jelly jam

These jellyfish cause a whole litany of problems for the local fishermen.  Not only do they devour any fish that gets too close to their gigantic tentacles (these lethal ropes are thicker than the internet cable that transmitted this article to your terminal), but they also are easily tangled up in fishing nets and sting any unfortunate soul tasked with removing them.

To make matters worse, it’s very difficult to fight back against these gelatinous monstrosities.  Killing the jellyfish by disrupting its physical structure merely results in the creature releasing thousands of polyps that, if left to their own devices, will grow to become mirror images of their late predecessor.  This is a good system for perpetuating the species, but a terrible problem to those who would eradicate it.

Jellyfish factory?

Jellyfish factory?

As of now, no one has carved in stone the reasons behind this infestation, but we can venture some guesses.  Ocean acidification is a likely culprit: we continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere, which is captured by the ocean and, through a chemical process, lowers the pH of the seawater.  This process, plus global climate change, have created warmer, more acidic surface temperatures in the ocean, which are ideal for incubating jellyfish.  Moreover, our perpetual quest to remove the largest fish from the oceans and either plop them on our Weber grills or nail them to the billiard room wall has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.  With 90% of the oceans’ large predatory fish in severe decline, the jellyfish simply doesn’t have as many predators as it once did.  Thus are these lovely but biologically primitive (and dangerous) animals running amok.

Sure, the driving force behind this jellyfish explosion may have more components than just those two aforementioned issues, but there is no doubt whatsoever that the overarching cause is anthropogenic.  We did this.  We have that kind of power.

Promised land

Promised land

Through the way we have treated the planet, we have invited this scourge upon ourselves – and it is up to us to fix it.  We must change our ways: decrease our fishing capacity to lessen overfishing, and reduce our carbon emissions to keep acidification at bay.

To save his people, Moses led them into the waters, which parted before him.  We must realize that we, too, have tremendous control over the sea.  If we are to save ourselves, we must no longer be slaves to a system that has our entire ecosystem careening out of control.  We must find the courage to confront reality, and to cross this desert we have created.

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Update: Alaska Pollock (Imitation crab / Kanikama)

Feeding the world

Feeding the world

When Sustainable Sushi was being developed, the Alaska pollock fishery — the 2nd largest fishery in terms of total biomass in the entire world — seemed relatively healthy and stable.  At the very least, it provided a traceable and ostensibly well-managed seafood source that was superior to the random mash of imported whitefish that provides the ersatz fish protein underpinning our fish stick and surimi industries. In fact, the Alaska pollock fishery has been considered a “Best Choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program for years, and is an MSC-certified fishery.

Things seem to be taking a turn for the worse, however.  Recent developments in the fishery seem to suggest that all may not be well in pollock country.

Bottoming out

Bottoming out

For five years running, the stock has seen lower levels of recruitment (new fish in younger age classes) than historical trends would lead researchers to expect.  Overall stock levels have severely declined as well, taking the overall populations to levels only previously reached in the late 1970s — a time when the fishery was open to international fleets and was being heavily over-exploited.

Bycatch levels are also higher than one would like.  An increase in overall CPUE (Catch Per Unit of Effort — a measurement of the amount of resources and manpower needed to produce a given amount of fish) has led to increased mortality among co-habiting salmon.  Local sea birds and marine mammals are also being affected; strong links are being drawn between the pollock fishery and a downturn in northern fur seals and the endangered Stellar’s sea lion.

Trawl victims

Pollock trawls are impacting sensitive seabed habitats as well — new explorations in the Bering Sea have revealed rich areas of endemic corals.  Unfortunately, these areas are not yet protected from fishing, and the pollock fleet is freely operating in coral beds which should ideally be listed as no-take zones.

Most troubling, however, is the reaction on the part of the Northern Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC), a federal body that is responsible for setting the yearly pollock quota.  Rather than use the aforementioned concerns as justification to pare down the fishery and reign in some of its more worrisome aspects, the NPFMC instead did the exact opposite and increased the allowed amount of king salmon bycatch to 60,000 fish.

This is poor management from an environmental standpoint.  The pollock fishery’s regulations are such that when the bycatch cap for salmon is reached, the fishery is immediately shut down for the year.  This increase in tolerable bycatch numbers reflects the rising CPUE within today’s pollock fishery, but rather than move to rebuild the fishery, it simply allows for greater and more damaging exploitation.

Can you spot the pollock?

Can you spot the pollock?

The pollock fishery is no longer what it once was.  It is clear that federal management cannot be depended upon to make wise and environmentally sound decisions in the face of the economic and industrial short-term interests that dominate the pollock industry.  Given the current situation, I have no choice but to urge readers to refrain from purchasing products that contain Alaska pollock.  In the sushi industry, this means the California roll and other items that include kanikama (imitation crab).

This is by no means an irreversible situation.  The Alaska pollock is an incredibly resilient and fecund fish that has the capability to bounce back.  Proper management can restore the fishery to its former productive glory, just as was done in the early 1980s.  The greater worry is for other impacted populations, primarily Stellar’s sea lions, Alaskan king salmon, coldwater corals, and northern fur seals.  If the pollock fishery is to continue, it must reinvent itself to be more sensitive to these co-habiting species.

I have no doubt that other environmental organizations have this issue on their radar, and that we will in the very near future begin to see more criticism of the Alaska pollock fishery from groups much larger and more established than Sustainable Sushi.

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Why Nobu must evolve

Anyone who has listened to the radio, watched television, read a newspaper, surfed the internet, or chased after celebrity gossip in the past couple of weeks has likely heard about something about a particular sushi chain getting called out for a history of nefarious behavior.

The chain in question in Nobu, the fantastically successful joint venture of renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa, the Raging Bull himself Robert De Niro, and three other partners. Nobu is a sushi giant, with twenty-four locations that dot the most chic neighboorhoods of many of the world’s most glamourous cities, and a menu replete with dozens of price tags that would make the average recession-choked American both green with envy and red with rage.

Countdown to extinction

Countdown to extinction

Nobu is under siege from all sides for its continual disregard for the health of our planet.  The high-end chain sells a tremendous amount of bluefin tuna, much of which is critically endangered Northern bluefin (Thunnus thynnus) from the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.  Despite repeated warnings about the looming commercial extinction of this majestic fish from a vast international amalgamation of scientists, actors, conservation organizations, foodies, bloggers, aquaria, filmmakers, and even a European Prince, Nobu resolutely presses forward, offering no comment and refusing to alter its menu in the slightest.  The restaurant’s response is akin to a tantrum-throwing child clapping his hands over his ears while stomping his feet, or perhaps to a yoked horse charging towards a cliff regardless of its own life or the lives of those in the stagecoach attached to it.  Nobu’s arrogant denial of the reality of our mutual challenge — the continual decline of the health of our oceans — is a serious problem.

Not in my ocean: Elle MacPhearson is one of the many celebrities boycotting Nobu

Not in my ocean: Elle MacPhearson is one of the many celebrities boycotting Nobu

But this is not about just one restaurant.  Nobu is a symbol; it represents the old guard of restaurateurs whose lofty perches often distance them from the plebeian masses.  Moreover, Nobu is a rallying point — as an endangered species-slinging, celebrity-owned, stratospherically-priced haunt for the upper crust, it’s a perfect target for those who are itching for a greater level of corporate responsibility within the restaurant industry.

For those of you who are not yet aware, I have recently accepted the position of Senior Markets Campaigner for one of my favorite conservation organizations, GreenpeaceThis does not indicate the convergence of Greenpeace and www.sustainablesushi.net, which remains an independent forum – but the arrangement allows me to work with a large group of passionate individuals towards the greater goal of a healthy planet.  One of the ways that we can reach this goal is through the reformation of the sushi industry, and there’s no better way to accomplish this than to get some high-level trendsetters on board.  Enter Nobu.

Nobu has already been “outed” on their unsustainable practices (this interaction is featured in the forthcoming documentary The End of the Line, based on the excellent book by Charles Clover).  Nobu promised to label bluefin as an endangered species on all of their menus, but subsequently changed tactics and cut off communications.  The one menu that reflects any change whatsoever is at the London branch, which uses a microscopic footnote to indicate that bluefin is “environmentally challenged.”  This thunderous understatement aside, Nobu has done absolutely nothing to protect that very fish which has so heavily contributed to the jingling pockets of the restaurant’s owners.  Our oceans cannot endure this situation any longer.  Enter Greenpeace.

I am not a fan of direct confrontation.  I view it as an avenue of last resort, only to be used when all other tactics have been exhausted.  In this case, Nobu has been stonewalling environmental entreaty for over a year while the chain contiunues to plunder the ocean for its own insatiable greed.  To expose and spotlight this edacious behavior, John Hocevar, Greenpeace’s Oceans Campaign Director, developed a mock Nobu menu — a Swiftian satire of Nobu’s reckless quest for profit at all costs.  What is the difference, the menu suggests, between Northern bluefin and mountain gorilla, Iberian lynx, or California Condor?  All of these animals are critically endangered.  Why is it acceptable to serve the former, when the presence of any of the latter three on a restaurant menu would no doubt solicit a restaurant critic’s verbal equivalent of a molotov cocktail through the front window?

Spreading the word
Spreading the word, one menu at a time

Over the past week, Greenpeace activists in both New York and Los Angeles have staged “dine-ins” at Nobu’s TriBeCa and West Hollywood locations, festooning the restaurant with mock menus, taking up table space, and demanding to speak to the manager about Nobu’s egregious disregard for our planet’s welfare.

The actions were conducted in a precise manner that was aimed at sending a message to upper management without undue disruption of other restaurant patrons.  Nobu servers were generously tipped by Greenpeace activists; after all, the  restaurant ownership’s head-in-the-sand mentality does not justify behavior that would send the waitresses and waiters, who have no decision-making power but who do have families and livelihoods, home without the tips on which they depend.  We are, after all, in a recession.

The point of all this is to take the issue to Nobu on the restaurant’s home turf.  In addition to being lambasted in the press, demonized in a documentary, and boycotted by celebrities, Nobu now must contend with activists that march directly into the restaurant to speak their minds.

The stubborn legend himself: Matsuhisa-san

The stubborn legend himself: Matsuhisa-san

Nobu is a trend-setting establishment that not only spans the globe, but wields incredible influence at the top of the sushi industry food chain. The innovative akumen and staggering talent of Nobu Matsuhisa are undeniable; he is undoubtedly capable of creating delectable dishes from both sustainable and unsustainable sources alike. Why, then, is he so resistant to use these gifts in an environmentally friendly manner?

Still, viewing this issue as “environmentalists v Nobu” is missing the point. Both groups want the same outcome: a healthy and productive ocean that can provide all the ecosystem services to foster sustainable business and healthy living. If Nobu were to drop bluefin and adopt a sustainable business model, it would be in the interest of the environmental community to promote the restaurant and encourage consumers to patronize it, rather than the unfortunate current situation.

Nobu needs to change their practices and begin to demonstrate corporate responsibility. Although environmentally rapacious and irresponsible businesses no longer have a place in this changing world, it is in everyone’s interest that sustainable and wisely managed establishments thrive and succeed.

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From tigers to lions

Net full of problems

Anyone who has seen one of my presentations or endured my presence on a panel has probably heard me lambaste bluefin tuna ranching.  I often employ a hackneyed analogy to describe this phenomenon by equating ranching bluefin to “farming tigers.”  The reasoning behind this has to do with the position that bluefin occupies in the oceanic food web.  Bluefin tuna are top carnivores in the watery realms, and thus are similar to the great cats and other apex predators here on terra firma.

The point here is simple: we don’t farm great cats.  Not just because they don’t taste good (although I can’t imagine that they do), but because it makes exactly zero sense from the perspective of an agriculturist.  A tiger farmer would have to raise or purchase grass or grain to feed herbivores (such as cows), raise and fatten the cows, and then slaughter the cows to feed the tigers.  The amount of salable protein generated by butchering the tigers would be only a fraction of what the farmer could realize by butchering and selling the cows (not to mention how much more efficient it would be to simply sell the grain itself for human consumption.)

There are two differences between a bluefin ranch and a theoretical tiger farm from a markets perspective.  The first is demand.  Aside from a peripheral black market, based primarily in China, that values the penis and gall bladder of the animal for pseudo-medicinal purposes, there is no demand for tiger flesh.  Bluefin, unfortunately, is struggling under the weight of tremendous demand driven by a rapidly expanding sushi industry.

Top cat

The second difference is the legal recognition (and a strong social awareness) of the animal’s plight.  All of the world’s tiger subspecies are, lamentably, endangered at best. Ironically, the charisma of the tiger and the widespread awareness of its unenviable situation has earned it a tremendous amount of support in the form of global conservation effort.  In fact, the tiger was voted the “world’s favorite animal” in a 2005 survey by Animal Planet (even defeating such lovable competitors as the dog and the dolphin.)

The bluefin tuna has no such succor.  It is a migratory oceanic species and thus extremely difficult to protect through national legislation.  International agreements such as ICCAT continue to fail to address the actual issues threatening the species (overfishing, bycatch, etc.)   Moreover, while this animal is fascinating and extremely charismatic to those fortunate few who have interacted with it, the bluefin still suffers from the “it’s just a fish” veil of dismissal that keeps us at arm’s length from many of our ocean’s most awe-inspiring denizens.

Feeding food to food

The point of all this is to say that while we would never consider farming tigers as a protein source, we farm bluefin in great numbers, despite their relatively equivalent positions in their respective ecosystems.  It’s an incredibly resource-intensive task to farm a bluefin.  For every salable pound of tuna that comes out of a bluefin farm, up to twenty-five pounds of wild fish (often sardines and anchoveta from unmanaged fisheries) have gone in as feed.  To make matters worse, bluefin are only very rarely reared ex ovo; traditionally, the juveniles are purloined from the wild and transferred to pens for fattening.  Thus, every tuna that one purchases from a bluefun tuna farm is actually a wild tuna that never had an opportunity to breed.  Needless to say, the world’s wild bluefin tuna populations are shadows of their former selves.  The bluefin is, for all intents and purposes, an endangered species.  Yet we continue to devour it without compunction.

Things seem bleak, indeed.  And it is from this stark landscape that a new player has arisen, with a plan to ease the pressure.

Maybe.

Hawaii Oceanic Technology, a Honolulu-based company, is aiming to create a new tuna farm that instead of adding to the woes of the bluefin, will focus on one of it’s relatives: Thunnus obesus, the bigeye tuna.  Ostensibly, this will lessen the overall pressure on bluefin by offering a similar fish to appease market demand.

Net pen aquaculture

While bluefin is generally fattened in inshore net pens, Hawaii Oceanic intends to construct an offshore farm, located about three miles off the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii.  One of the potential advantages of offshore aquaculture is that it is thought to reduce the impact of waste by allowing effluent to diffuse through a much deeper water column.  The revolutionary Kona Blue operation, similarly located in Hawaii, utilizes this principle in its production of Seriola rivioliana, which it markets as “Kona Kampachi.”

While there is still a pronounced paucity of evidence regarding this hypothesis, it seems to be based on reasonable assumptions, and I don’t want to dwell on it as I feel there are three other, more important issues at stake.  Additionally, the prototype “Oceanspheres” that Hawaii Oceanic are developing for use as fish enclosures are really quite impressive — especially their use of OTEC (ocean thermal energy conversion) technology, which is a virtually untapped renewable energy resource.  I’m very interested to see where this leads.

Anyhow, back to the issues at hand.

Sexy sexy tuna belly

First off: market demand.  Bigeye tuna, known as mebachi in Japanese, is indeed a source of tuna fillets, fatty belly cuts, etc.  But to be frank, mebachi toro is simply not as alluring as honmaguro (bluefin) toro.  As a matter of fact, the best replacement that I have found for the buttery, supple taste and texture of bluefin belly is high-quality shiromaguro toro – a belly cut from the albacore, bluefin’s much smaller cousin.  I am not alone in my beliefs here.  Sure, mebachi is still a much-demanded fish, but will it really affect the demand for bluefin?

The second issue is feed.  As I mentioned before, farming bluefin is a protein-hungry business.  Why would farming bigeye be any different?  Hawaii Oceanic states that their goal is to eventually replace the fish used in the feed process with soy or an algae-based protein source, but that they will need to use fish meal at first.

Certainly one has to begin any new venture in stages… but how long are we talking about?  There is no need for another fish-based tuna farm.  There was never any environmental benefit to these operations in the first place.  If indeed it were a farm fed entirely from sustainable sources, that would potentially change the equation — but there’s a big word between now and then, and that word is “eventually.”  The lack of a hard timetable here casts some doubt on the rosy picture that Hawaii Oceanic has painted.

The final issue is the sourcing of the fish itself.  One of the major problems with bluefin farms is that the fish are taken as juveniles from flagging wild stocks.  Hawaii Oceanic pledges to surmount this obstacle by hatching bigeye from eggs in a controlled facility.  These fry would then be transferred to the offshore pens for rearing.

"Mommy, where does tuna come from?"

This is a good plan, if it can be achieved.  In essence, by allowing the company to breed tuna from a small clutch of broodstock rather than abducting wild fish, they can produce tuna without major detrimental impacts to the local populations (at least from a sourcing perspective.)  But can they do it?

The A-Marine Kindai bluefin operation in Japan has managed to create a system where they hatch their fish in a similar manner.  This type of aquaculture, known as “closed life cycle farming,” is certainly a step in the right direction.  But is it missing the point?

Four pounds of fish in a three-ounce package

Wow! Four pounds of fish in a convenient three-ounce package

Even if this kind of thing ends up working, we’re still dealing with an apex predator, and thus eating very high on the food chain.  When trophic dynamics are considered, it becomes clear that the amount of energy demanded from natural (or, in this case, quasi-natural) cycles to produce something like a farmed tuna dwarfs the actual amount of protein received by the consumer.  Farming this kind of animal is reinforcing a negative paradigm that has been held as gospel in the North American diet for far too long.  Moreover, tuna do not have the fish oils and the omega-3s that many smaller, cold-water fish (such as mackerel and sardines) do, nor do they reproduce as quickly.  Not to mention that this type of aquaculture is never going to “feed the world” — it’s simply too expensive.

Now that's progress!

While Hawaii Oceanic may be attempting to build a better mousetrap with this theoretical bigeye farm, we may be swapping tigers for lions.  It we want a harmonious and sustainable relationship with the world’s oceans, it will take more than finding a way to create larger amounts of what the market currently demands.  We need to be willing to significantly alter the way that we think about food, and I’m not sure how much of a change a bigeye farm really represents.

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The not-so-Pacific Ocean


pa·cif·ic

Pronunciation: \pə-ˈsi-fik\ Buy viagra soft pills

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Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English pacifique, from Latin pacificus, from pac-, pax peace + -i- + -ficus -fic
Date: circa 1548

1 a: tending to lessen conflict : conciliatory b: rejecting the use of force as an instrument of policy

2 a: having a soothing appearance or effect <mild pacific breezes> b: mild of temper : peaceable

All that being said, the Pacific Ocean may be veering away from its job description.

A new report just released by the Center for Ocean Solutions (in partnership with the IUCN and the Ocean Conservancy) showcases that the Pacific Ocean is, unfortunately, anything but. The report, entitled the Pacific Ocean Scientific Consensus Statement, was produced by a gathering of leading scientists from over 30 countries that drew on over 3,400 peer-reviewed scientific publications. This omnibus treatise is both a synopsis of the critical environmental status of the Pacific as well as a litany of potential steps that could be taken to address its myriad woes.

The report breaks the vast Pacific into sectors and analyzes them individually. This is an interesting and useful approach, as it helps to identify and pair particular countries (the Pacific borders nearly 50) with particular environmental issues. Each sector is afflicted by its own unique combination of offenders — overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, etc. The report does an admirable job of identifying the severity these negative influences and associating them with the actual issues at hand.

It’s not a pretty picture. The Pacific Ocean is in a great deal of trouble, and the situation is getting worse. For example, the northeast Pacific — the oceanic expanse that graces our coastline here in northern California, also extending north to Alaska and south to the Panama Canal — is one of the most devastated areas, due to overfishing and tremendous pollution problems. In fact, it is this area that is home to the notorious Pacific Gyre, aka the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” — a quagmire of flotsam and jetsam that is now twice as large as the state of Texas.

The northwest Pacific comprises the seas around Japan, Korea, and the far eastern reaches of Russia, which are some of the most heavily exploited areas by the global fishing industry. These were at one time some of the most productive waters on the planet, especially the vibrant, nutrient-rich areas of coastal Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk. There is a tremendous demand for seafood among the many coastal metropolises in this area of the world; overfishing has devastated many of the fish populations in the area and continues for the most part unabated. Chinese waters are particularly at risk due to high levels of waste, unchecked aquaculture, and coastal development.

The other areas of the Pacific also face significant challenges. Micronesia is struggling against overfishing and climate shift that is leading to unprecedented land loss, while its southern neighbor, Melanesia, is faced with land-based sedimentation that threatens to choke inshore habitat. The East Asian Seas around Indonesia and the Philippines are losing their coral reefs to destructive fishing methods (like dynamite and cyanide fishing) and unchecked pollution. Polynesia, potentially the least bedeviled of the identified sectors, is nevertheless under attack from coastal development, land reclamation projects, and other negative influences.

But it’s not all bad news. The report suggests a number of options to address these problems, and it’s this that really makes the document worth reading. These “Solutions” sections help to connect the dots and blaze trails through what would otherwise appear a hopeless morass of trouble and tragedy. Most specifically, the authors stress the importance of forward-thinking actions such as the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs) and the creation of international legal schema to manage transient and migratory fish populations.

I highly suggest taking a look at the executive summary first, and then delving into the report itself. Please feel free to post your thoughts and comments here.

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Update: Freshwater Eel / Unagi (CONTEST)

Please stop eating unagi.

An adult European eel, Anguilla anguilla.

A recent article in the Guardian, a prestigious UK newspaper that has an entire department devoted to environmental issues, has reported that eel populations across the European continent have dropped by 95% in the past 25 years.  Sadly, this isn’t really that surprising.

Steven Morris, the article’s author, writes that “a ban on exporting eels out of Europe – they are a popular dish in the far east – is proposed, along with a plan to severely limit the fishing season and the number of people who will be allowed licences [sic -- heh].”  Unfortunately, that is the extent to which the article discusses the connection of the eel’s dire situation to the sushi world.

Eels in captivity.  Chances are exceptionally good that they were captured from a dying European or American population.

The unagi industry is based primarily in China and relies on glass eels (babies) caught in the wild rather than hatching animals within the farms.

There’s not a whole lot I can add to my current entry on unagi.  It already ends with “Don’t eat it.”  I guess this isn’t so much of an update as it is me beating the same old drum.

I don’t mean to be preachy, but this animal is in serious trouble.  We need to give it a break.  There are other options.  Honestly, drench just about any fatty, sustainable whitefish (I suggest Alaskan or Canadian black cod) in kabeyaki sauce, broil it or sear it with a blowtorch, and serve it with sesame seeds over rice: it’s gonna taste a whole lot like unagi.

Listen, I’m not trying to be obnoxious about this.  I just am particularly passionate about this issue.  The eel is an incredible creature, and we know so little about it.  All freshwater eels from both sides of the North Atlantic swim all the way to one small tract of ocean — the Sargasso Sea — to spawn.  For the longest time, we actually thought they simply incarnated from mud and weeds in rivers because we had never seen breeding eels. There’s still so much we can learn about this animal.

Your entry will be prepared in this fashion.

Let me put something out there, as added incentive.  How about this — everyone who reads this post, please comment on it with your alternative to eel.  It could be anything you want (but black cod, aka sablefish, has already been taken, so that doesn’t count; and no unsustainable items — that goes without saying.)  I’ll wait ten days from posting.  On the eleventh day (May 15th), I’ll take all the suggestions to Chef Kin Lui at Tataki Sushi Bar.  He will look at the list of suggestions, try them out as kabeyaki-style dishes, and choose a favorite.  I’ll post a picture of the winning dish.  Whoever wins will receive a free dinner for two at Tataki Sushi Bar in San Francisco, as well as a signed copy of my book.

Good luck!

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Sardines, the MSC, and the future

Ok, so it’s no secret that I love sardines.  They’re a great example of the kind of fish that we should be eating more of.  They reproduce in large numbers, breed at a young age, and are exceptionally fecund.  They’re low on the trophic scale and thus are an efficient source of protein, so it’s not tough for me to bang the drum about them when I talk about how we can eat fish more sustainably.

Sardines are low in mercury, PCBs, and other contaminents due to their short lifespans and to where they live in the water column.  Also, like many cold-water oily fish, sardines are high in Omega-3s.  Awesome.

But there’s a problem.

The vast majority of the sardines we get in this country are sealed away in funky little pull-tab tins that make me think of oil drum fires, harmonicas, and shady alleys in East St. Louis.  This unfortunate image problem makes it difficult to put the humble sardine back on the menu in American restaurants.  We’ve developed a taste for “fresh” fish (don’t get me started on how ridiculous the concept of “fresh” is).

Our sardines are not fresh.  They languish in decade-old cans in the back of the pantry, waiting for some catastrophic event when the infrastructure of the country collapses and we are forced to live on tinned food in underground bomb shelters with half of the neighborhood.

The fact is, though, that the sardine is a diamond in the rough.  Sashimi-grade sardines are healthy, delicious morsels that give us an excellent option for positive change at the sushi bar as well as the seafood counter.  Any decent sushi bar should offer iwashi when sardines are in season, and I highly recommend giving them a try.

That being said, there’s still one problem… and yes, it’s sustainability related.

The vast majority of the sardines that come into this country are from enormous foreign fisheries that have little or no transparency and management.  Morocco, Thailand, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, Poland, and countless other countries have sardine fisheries.  But which ones are sustainable?

The answer: I don’t know.  I’m not sure that anyone has a good answer.

The folks at FishWise and Seafood Watch have been wrestling with this issue for a while.  There really isn’t much information available on most sardine stocks.  It’s probably due to an ongoing issue that permeates much of our relationship to the ocean — we like big fish.  And pretty fish.  And brightly-colored fish.  And fish with sharp teeth.

But little fish with no “personalities”, no stories, no flashy colors — people don’t really seem to care about them too much.  There’s an historic trend of these “forage fish” (small fish like sardines and smelt that form the lower levels of the food web and support many larger fish) being ignored by fishery management schemes.  Even after the train wreck at Cannery Row, it’s still common to think that these tiny carbon-copy fish are infinite in number: they are all too often of negligible importance to the scientists and policy-makers that spend their time dealing with sharks and salmon.

But little but little, this is starting to change.

A new announcement by the Marine Stewardship Council showcases a great example of this paradigm shift.  The French purse-seine sardine fishery in the Bay of Biscay is now officially in full MSC assessment.  Those of you familiar with the MSC are likely aware that any fishery that makes it into full assessment has a very high chance of gaining certification.

I have issues with the MSC, mainly based around stringency of benchmarks and their process for demanding and monitoring fishery improvements, but even I have to admit that the MSC brings one very important piece of the sustainability process to the table: traceability.  MSC-certified products are tracked in such a way that it is possible to determine nearly everything about the fish in question — stock status, catch method, even load/unload data and break-of-bulk points are recorded.  This is an incredbibly important step forward for most fisheries, but for sardiners, it’s an unheard-of leap.

Sardines have a lot going for them.  They’re the kind of animals that have a good chance at supporting our seafood demand due to inherent physiology and life history.  But if we don’t give them the attention they deserve and fish for them in a sustainable and traceable manner, well, those old tins in your pantry might start to look a lot more appetizing.

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Update: Amberjack (Hamachi, Kanpachi, and Hiramasa)

Posted by Casson in Science and Rankings, Update

The original entry on hamachi (buri) has been split into three distinct chapters — hamachi (buri), kanpachi, and hiramasa.  This allows for a more precise focus on these three important and significantly different industries.

Recommendations have changed for hiramasa.

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