Update: Mackerel (Saba)

Fishy goodness

I’m a big fan of mackerel.  It’s a fantastic fish.  Not only is it healthy and nutritious, but it reproduces quickly, breeds in large numbers, and often benefits from effective and precautionary management.  Good stuff.  In fact, saba has been a sushi staple of mine for years, and I encourage you to give it a shot in the place of other more troubling sushi items (like unagi or hamachi, for instance) next time you visit a sushi bar.

That being said, some troubling news from the Atlantic has forced me to revisit my standard double-fisted endorsement.

The mackerel fishery off the coast of the British Isles has been growing in popularity now that the more traditional seafood options, such as haddock, have been depleted.  One would hope that we can learn from our previous mistakes and manage this fishery in a precautionary manner that will prevent us from repeating the depressing boom-and-crash pattern that we’ve seen with cod, plaice, and other North Atlantic species.

Everything looked positive at first.  A pole-and-line mackerel fishery in Cornwall, as well as several midwater trawl fisheries elsewhere in the British Isles, sought and received Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification.  Management seemed to be sound and bycatch was low.  Now, however, climate change has reared its head, and a new set of challenges is looming on the horizon.

Go north, young fish... actually, wait

Global climate change is affecting the water temperature of our oceans.  The surface waters of certain areas of the Northeastern Atlantic are beginning to warm slightly, and this has driven the mackerel stocks further north.  Their migration has taken them into Icelandic and Faeroese waters — the territories of two massive new predators whose presence had not been foreseen by management or certification authorities.

The mackerel stock in the Northeast Atlantic is managed under a joint quota that is split between the European Union, Norway, and Russia.  Iceland, which has never fished this stock in the past, has now unilaterally declared that it will take over 100,000 mt of mackerel annually.  The total quota set for the fishery for the EU, Norway, and Russia combined is just over 500,000 mt.  The Icelandic fishing industry is taking an additional 20% on top of this, and is doing so in spite of the current international management efforts.  The Faeroes have also announced that they will be substantially ramping up their mackerel fishery, which may compound the problem even further.

For cod and country

These international tugs-of-war over our fishery resources are never good.  This kind of competition can lead to overfishing, increasing pirate fishing activity, and even — especially in the case of Iceland and the UK — direct confrontation.  A few decades back, these two countries had a prolonged series of naval skirmishes over fishing rights.  These “Cod Wars,” as they came to be known, included ramming, net cutting, and even shots being fired.  Luckily no one was harmed, but the importance of this issue to the Icelanders and the British was underscored several times over.

A few days ago, the MSC stated that additional Icelandic and Faeroese fishing pressure on the mackerel stock may end up costing certified mackerel fisheries their blue stamps, which has caused outrage in the UK.   Groups like the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association are up in arms — not just because they may lose their quota, but also because the MSC’s distant deadline of January 1, 2012 puts very little pressure on the relevant authorities to resolve the dispute.

It remains to be seen how the EU will respond to Iceland’s actions, but until we know more, we should exercise a bit of caution with our consumption of Atlantic mackerel… or, even better, buy domestic.

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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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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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Update: Sea bass / Suzuki

I’ve been meaning to put this update together for a couple of weeks, but tour-related issues have forced me to keep putting it off.  Well, no more!  It’s time to talk about suzuki!

Ooh, I’m so mysterious!

This isn’t as much a ranking update as it is the addition of some interesting information to what I know about Japanese sea bass (Lateolabrax japonicus), which admittedly isn’t a whole lot.  This is a poorly understood fish from a notoriously opaque industry so I haven’t had a lot to go on.  Also, to be honest, from the perspective of one who is primarily concerned about explosive sushi demand here in North America, it’s not really that relevant.

Not me. I’m from Palm Springs.

Most suzuki served here in the United States is a hybridized striped bass, Morone saxatilis x chrysops.  They are raised in closed-containment tank farms in southern California, Arizona, and Texas, and from a sustainability perspective, they’re fantastic.  We’re talking a net positive increase in protein (the fish-in-to-fish-out ratio is usually about 0.7:1, so only seven-tenths of a pound of wild fish is necessary to produce one pound of salable striped bass), as well as clean facilities that are sequestered within a series of locks and filters and thus pose no significant threat to the local environment in terms of genetic disturbance, effluent discharge, or disease transmission.  Good stuff.

With so many US sushi bars using farmed striped bass as suzuki, I haven’t really been under a lot of pressure to dig into the Japanese sea bass fishery and farming industry.  That being said, this is interesting information, so why not spread it around?

It seems to be the case that the suzuki industry in Japan is a bit more stratified than I had thought.  Similarly to hamachi, this fish seems to be known by different names depending on size an age.  The best stab that I have at this right now is as follows:

under 30cm Hane (Hanego)
from 30 to 50cm Seigo
from 50 to 70cm Hukko
from 70 to 90cm Suzuki
over 90cm Nyudo

This, of course, raises a couple of questions that I do not currently have an answer to:

  • Is there a demand within the sushi industry for all five sizes of sea bass?
  • Are smaller sizes more expensive than larger ones (such as is the case with kohada), or perhaps larger sizes are more expensive than smaller ones (more similar to hamachi)?

Within the sushi industry, this type of differentiation by size is often an indication of a predilection for a certain size of fish.  This can be troubling from a sustainability perspective.  If young fish are exclusively targeted, they may be taken before they have an opportunity to breed and thus the stock can be weakened.  If larger fish are taken, the target pool of fish is necessarily smaller (due to the mortality experienced by the fish population) and the fishery is concentrating on only the largest breeders, which are again necessary for a healthy stock.

It also seems to be the case that the farmed suzuki commonly found in Japan is often referred to as tairiku-suzuki.  This may or may not be L. japonicus.

If anyone has any further information on any of these issues concerning suzuki and/or suzuki preferences within Japan, please email me or respond directly to this post.

I should mention that two friends and colleagues of mine, Mr. Fukuda Masashi and Mr. Kenya Nozaki, are both strong advocates of sustainability within the sushi industry, and have been invaluable in my research into the suzuki topic.  I look forward to their continued participation here at www.sustainablesushi.net.

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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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