4 Ocean Wonders You’ve Never Heard of that Desperately Need Your Protection

Posted by Casson in 4 Oceans

This is the most recent installment of my monthly Alternet column, “4 Oceans.” It was originally published on February 25, 2011.

The ocean is mysterious. It has obscured many of our planet’s most fantastic treasures from view since time immemorial, tucking them away in remote tropical waters, or hiding them deep beneath the white-capped fangs of raging polar seas. Sadly, many of these wonders are threatened by unbridled fishing pressure, deluges of castaway plastics, and a simple but devastating characteristic that, more than anything else, could guarantee their destruction: anonymity.

In this installment of “4 Oceans,” we’ll take a look at four astonishing marine marvels that most people have never heard of, and then discuss how these delicate ecosystems are under threat and what we as consumers can do to protect them.

A proud Zhemchug resident

He's a little crabby about the trawlers in his backyard

1. Zhemchug Canyon

Zhemchug (“pearl” in Russian) is the longest, widest and deepest canyon in the world. Its total volume is nearly twice that of the Grand Canyon. It is vast beyond description and teems with fascinating organisms. It is also hundreds of fathoms underwater.

Zhemchug, sprawling southwest from the Alaskan shore and deep into the Bering Sea, is home to dozens of soft corals, sponges and other invertebrates found nowhere else in the world. Only in the last five years have scientists have begun to plumb the depths of Zhemchug, and we still have virtually no information on what marvels it may conceal. That said, time is already running out.

Every year, the Alaskan pollock fleet rakes Zhemchug repeatedly with gigantic trawl nets in its relentless quest for fish protein (pollock is the low-value, high-volume fish often used to make products like fish sticks and fast-food fish sandwiches). While there is an argument for using pollock in our food system, there is no excuse for pulverizing Zhemchug Canyon (or its neighbor, Pribilof Canyon) to get it.

The pollock fishery covers thousands upon thousands of square miles outside of the canyons, and the vast majority of pollock is caught in these areas rather than Zhemchug or Pribilof. Pollock producers and companies that sell pollock products must commit to sourcing their pollock from outside the canyons if these amazing treasures are to survive.

To help protect Zhemchug Canyon: Avoid pollock products until leading seafood companies pledge only to source pollock from outside of the canyons, and then support those companies.

2. The Ross Sea

The Ross Sea, a remote, half-frozen dent in the side of Antarctica, is aptly nicknamed the ”the Last Ocean” — it is the only remaining oceanic ecosystem on our planet with a relatively intact animal population at all levels of the food chain. Elsewhere in the world, the ocean’s apex predators — sharks, bluefin tuna, swordfish, etc. — have been fished to the point of near-collapse. After nearly a century of industrialized fishing, the Ross is the only remaining sea that still has a strong top-level predator population.

The Last Ocean

The Last Ocean

The Ross Sea has no sharks. Instead, the food chain is dominated by two predators: the Antarctic toothfish and the Ross Sea orca. The toothfish, more commonly known by its menu-friendly moniker “Chilean sea bass” is the largest fish in the Ross Sea and a lynchpin of its ecosystem. The Ross Sea orca is a rare and isolated subspecies of killer whale found nowhere else in the world. Both species are under threat.

The Ross Sea is under increasing pressure by an emerging fishery targeting Antarctic toothfish. In order to satisfy a hunger for Chilean sea bass fillets, ships are now beginning to enter the last pristine ocean in search for white-fleshed plunder. Chilean sea bass is also a prime prey item for the Ross Sea orca, and recent science has identified a correlation between decreasing Antarctic toothfish populations and a diminishing orca presence.

To protect the Ross Sea: avoid Chilean sea bass, especially from the Ross Sea. Also, don’t be fooled by certifications — astonishingly, the Ross Sea toothfish fishery is Marine Stewardship Council-certified.

3. Palmyra Atoll

Cast far into the Pacific like a stone that has lost a child’s interest, Palmyra Atoll is a tropical wonderland upon which humanity has taken a sort of self-serving pity. Once privately owned by a wealthy American family, Palmyra was purchased some time ago by the Nature Conservancy in an effort to safeguard this virtually untouched ecosystem for study and posterity, and the atoll still boasts strong populations of many species that are disappearing from other areas of the tropics at astonishing rates.

It's me or the SUV

It's me or the SUV

Unfortunately, localized precautions cannot forestall a larger creeping doom that threatens to swallow Palmyra like a massive turtle — the menace of global climate change.

As we pump carbon into our atmosphere, we increase the rate at which our polar ice caps melt and give these areas less time to re-freeze in the winter. As such, water that had been frozen for eons is now streaming into the ocean, causing global sea levels to rise. A few vertical inches can spell the end for atolls like Palmyra, which is just one of the many sandbank jewels scattered about our world that may not survive to see the coming decades.

To save Palmyra: the best we can do is support clean energy efforts, limit our consumption of fossil fuels, and keep the climate crisis in mind as we go about our daily lives.

4. The Sargasso Sea

The world’s only “sea without shores” is geographically defined not by a neighboring land mass, but rather by the spatial dimensions of its own ecosystem. There is no other expanse of ocean like the Sargasso; a unique conflux of swirling currents, temperate weather, and the calming winds of the horse latitudes has given rise to an enormous morass of Sargassum seaweed. This vast aquatic jungle is the basis of an entire ecology involving dozens of species found nowhere else in the world.

It's a jungle down there

It's a jungle down there

Between the leafy sea dragons, pipefish and man-o-war peppering the Sargasso swim American and European freshwater eels, known in the sushi industry as unagi. These animals hatch in the waters of the Sargasso and are slowly swept along by the currents of the Atlantic Ocean. When the tiny eels enter water with decreased salinity — due to a nearby river mouth — they transform, developing muscles and the ability to propel their bodies through the water. These eels — now known as “elvers” — swim directly upriver, where they feed, grow and mature. They will spend their life in fresh water until they reach adulthood, whereupon they leave the river system and return to the Sargasso Sea to mate. All freshwater eels from both sides of the North Atlantic come to the Sargasso, and nowhere else, for this purpose.

But the Sargasso is in trouble. Not only are eels themselves severely overfished (that unagi at your local sushi bar may be “farmed,” but in reality, it was captured from the wild as an elver and transferred to a rearing facility for fattening), but the greedy eddies of the Sargasso attract massive amounts of jetsam from all over the Atlantic, especially plastic and container waste, which disrupt the ecosystem and hinder many animals’ ability to feed.

To help save the Sargasso: avoid unagi, and be judicious about the use of plastic bags and other refuse that often ends up in the oceans.

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A royal pardon

Posted by Casson in News and Announcements

In the embattled world of sustainable seafood, it’s always nice to see positive change in a major public venue.   As heartwarming as it is to hear from someone who has pledged to stop eating Chilean sea bass or unagi, it feels even better when a restaurant – or even better, an entire seafood distributor – drops it altogether in the name of environmental preservation.

In this vein, I’m thrilled to see a spark of light appear in the otherwise relentlessly dismal saga of the bluefin tuna.

Bright lights and sharp knives

Many readers of this blog are likely familiar with Food Network’s Iron Chef America, a culinary contest wherein a visiting chef races against time to prepare an assortment of gastronomic delights for a panel of judges.  At the same time, one of the resident masters – a star-spangled group known as the Iron Chefs – embarks on the same task in an effort to defend his or her title against the upstart challenger.  The dishes are linked by the requirement that they must all involve the day’s secret ingredient, which is revealed only moments before the contest begins.  The entire exercise takes place in front of dozens of cameras and a few quirky announcers in a regal arena known as “Kitchen Stadium.”

The chefs are allotted one hour to prepare their items and are subsequently judged on the relative merits of their menus.  The chef whose culinary tour de force is deemed to “reign supreme” by the panel is considered the winner of the day’s contest.

Wait -- WHAT?!?

Iron Chef America is a interesting show, to be sure, but it has historically concentrated on strict gastronomic hedonism – it seems that no ingredient is too expensive (or too endangered) to be included in the Stadium’s massive inventory.  I remember one particular episode of its forerunner, the Japanese TV cult smash Iron Chef, where a chef cooked down half a dozen lobsters with a few stalks of asparagus only to subsequently serve the lobster-infused vegetable and throw the crustaceans themselves in the trash.

Anyhow, the reason I bring this up is to highlight what I consider to be a significant shift towards ocean conservation in the highest levels of the modern American foodscape.  Iron Chef America has catapulted any number of victorious challengers into the spotlight – perhaps it can now do the same for a fish.

On Monday morning, a well-known food blogger and sustainable seafood enthusiast named Richard Auffrey threw his cyber-gauntlet at the feet of culinary celebrity and TV personality Alton Brown.  Mr. Brown, the host of Iron Chef America, is known to be a vocal advocate for seafood sustainability.  He has, in fact, gone as far as publicly announcing that until sushi kingpin Nobu Matsuhisa removes bluefin tuna from the menus of his eponymous restaurants, he will not set foot in any Nobu anywhere.

Leave me out of this. I'm feeling prickly.

So why did Auffrey take aim at someone who seems to be fighting on the same side of “Battle Bluefin”? (apologies to the Chairman)

Last week, Kitchen Stadium was visited by Makoto Okuwa, the former sous chef of Iron Chef and sushi icon Masaharu Morimoto.  Over the course of the contest, Chef Makoto prepared five dishes, all containing the day’s theme ingredient (which, auspiciously for the sushi chef, happened to be sea urchin.)  One of Okuwa’s offerings was his “uni surf and turf”: urchin-kissed wagyu beef paired with a ribbon of otoro, the belly flesh of a bluefin tuna.  Brown did not raise any objections or offer any comments on the unsustainability of the dish, and Auffrey reamed him for it.

I’m proud of Auffrey for sticking up for the flagging bluefin, but that’s not why this is so interesting to me.  The fascinating thing is what happened immediately after Auffrey posted his rant: Brown responded.  Like, right away.

Brown fenced with Auffrey a bit over the aggressive and accusatory tone that the blogger had adopted, but he also admitted that the use of bluefin in Kitchen Stadium was lamentable and unnecessary.  The two traded barbs and questions for a bit, but in the end, Brown took action and the oceans got what they needed.  According to Brown, bluefin tuna is now banned from Iron Chef America.

Bluefin? Not in our house... at least, not anymore

This is fabulous.   Iron Chef America is both one of the pioneering shows behind the recent explosion of food porn in the United States as well the American rendition of a classic Japanese TV program.  To have the pseudo-traditional otoro excluded from the Kitchen Stadium arsenal is an extremely powerful statement about the reality of our ailing oceans and the need for immediate action if we are to save them.

There are so many things about this story that I like.  I like how Auffrey stood up to Brown and called him out.  I like the prompt, gentlemanly, and constructive response Brown offered in spite of his indignation.  I like the quick decisive action that Brown took to rectify the situation.  I love the fact that bluefin tuna is now pisci non grata on a major Food Network television show.  And the icing on the cake?  Chef Makoto decisively lost the battle to Iron Chef Michael Symon, who didn’t use any bluefin at all.

Score one for the oceans.

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The Vanguard – Part 3: Mashiko

What problem?

What problem?

It is a frightening concept to mess with success.  The old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is alive and well in our modern economy, and the seafood industry is no exception.  Many seafood purveyors, when confronted with pressure to change their ways, can be resistant – especially if they see success and growth in their businesses.  Why change, if the status quo seems just fine?

The fact is, however, that all is not well.  There are a plethora of rocks and growlers lurking in the murky waters of the seafood industry: overfishing, habitat destruction, IUU fleets, and more.  Still, it’s not common that a business owner is able to see all of these obstacles clearly… especially if ones perspective is obscured by the constant back-and-forth of a ringing cash drawer.

Chef Hajime Sato, however, is different.

A tiny revolution

A tiny revolution

Mashiko restaurant has been operating in Seattle for fifteen years, and it is by no means an unsuccessful operation.  Chef Sato has a line out the door nearly every night, and unless you arrive just as the restaurant opens, it’s almost certain that you’ll be waiting for a table.  By all standards and appearances, this is a prospering business.  And frankly, Chef Sato had all this to lose when, in August of 2009, he took his entire business model and turned it upside-down.

Mashiko is the first sushi restaurant in the world that has transitioned from a conventional operation to a sustainable one.  With only minimal help from myself and the other players in the movement, Sato turned his restaurant into a sustainable operation.  He bid good riddance to his bluefin, hamachi, eel, monkfish, and other unsustainable items.  These days, he directs his efforts towards innovation, education, and the identification of local and sustainable options.


New moves

Moreover, Chef Sato is the first traditionally-trained Japanese sushi chef to embrace the sustainable sushi movement.  In his words, however, he is simply returning to the basic principles that gave rise to sushi over a hundred years ago: utilization of local and seasonal products, reverence for life, and interpretation of the bounty of the oceans in a respectful and reverent manner.

In the last few months, Mashiko has achieved a much greater degree of exposure than ever before.  Interviews with Chef Sato have run on any number of popular food blogs; he received a glowing review of his operation from the Seattle Times and has appeared on the Food Network’s Extreme Cuisine with Jeff Corwin, where he discussed innovation in sushi, local seafood sourcing, and the amazing bounty of Puget Sound.

Through his bravery in challenging the conventional model, his determination to hold ethics and ocean conservation over the maximization of profit, and his contribution to the nascent sustainable sushi movement as well as the overall awareness of the consumer public in the Pacific Northwest, Chef Hajime Sato has brought a new spark to the sustainable sushi movement.

Good to have you on board, buddy.

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The question of certification

Setting the stage for sustainable aquaculture

Setting the stage for sustainable aquaculture

There is no debate about the part that aquaculture will play in tomorrow’s seafood industry.  It will be huge.  The titular role.  The eponymous lead.  The center-stage dynamo that gets the snazzy technicolor jacket and all the catchy solos.  Lo, for we have seen the future of seafood, and like it or not, that future is farming.

Just in the last decade or so, we’ve watched the percentage of the overall seafood supply that is sourced from aquaculture operations grow from 25% to 50%.  No doubt we will soon see a world where most of the fish we consume are raised in farms.  With this in mind, it’s no wonder that the seafood world is all agog over a long-awaited development in the aquaculture industry that finally came to pass a few days ago.


First to the finish line

The World Wildlife Fund, in conjunction with industry, government, and NGO representatives, has created a standard for tilapia farming through a multi-stakeholder process known as the Tilapia Aquaculture Dialogue (affectionately referred to as “the TAD“).  This is the first of many forthcoming standards stemming out of the larger Aquaculture Dialogue process, which focuses on species rather than on countries, regions, or technologies.  The TAD standard is the result of a exhaustive four-year process that has resulted in an ISEAL-compliant set of certification metrics by which the performance of tilapia farms can be measured.  Participating farms that meet the standard’s benchmarks are eligible to receive certification.

In the future, this standard (as well as all future Dialogue-driven standards) will be held by a body known as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, or ASC (sound familiar?)  The ASC is slated to open its doors in 2011.  In the interim, the TAD standard will be temporarily held by GLOBALGAP, a veteran agriculture certification organization which ironically may soon find itself in an rivalrous relationship with the nascent ASC.

Um... no

Um... no

I did not participate personally in the development of the TAD, but I have been fortunate enough to be involved in the Pangasius Aquaculture Dialogue (that’s right… the “PAD.”  There’s also the “BAD,” the “ShAD,” the “SCAD,” the “TrAD“, and the “SAD“.  Can you guess what they stand for?)  As I wrote in a recent post, I’ve learned a lot from my involvement in the project and I do think that it has the potential to lead to positive change.  That being said, I have to ask — are we chasing the right paradigm here?  Can certification really play the panacea to all our seafood woes?

What are your thoughts on this?  Is certification the way forward?  Will a “sustainable” certification be enough to both appease demand for eco-friendly seafood and to protect the natural world?

To catch an eel

To catch an eel

We’ve seen what happens when unchecked aquaculture is unleashed upon the environment.  The 1980s and 1990s saw the destruction of countless square miles of mangroves by relentless shrimp farming operations.  The cost of conventional salmon farming on the ecosystems of British Columbia and Chile is too high to compute.  American and European eel populations have declined by 90% in the last 20 years due in part to the insatiable elver abduction scheme that fuels the unagi industry.

There are some that would say that certification falls short; that we need top-level policy that governs the way fish farms operate.  By way of example, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has drawn fire for dubious decision-making in regard to numerous fisheries.  New Zealand hoki is MSC-certified “sustainable”, yet it is considered an unacceptably destructive option by many environmental organizations and has even been boycotted by Waitrose, a major retail chain in the United Kingdom.  More recent MSC certification projects, such as Ross Sea toothfish and Pacific hake, have drawn fire as well.

The people's swamp

The people's swamp

Still, fisheries are not the same as fish farms.  They are national resources, not industrial enterprises, and thus are managed (at least ostensibly) by a central governing body.  Fish farms are largely beholden to their shareholders and operate as designed by their architects.  They are not pulling from the same communal resources, per se, as a national fishing fleet… or are they?

When a salmon farm dumps pollutants and parasites into the nearby ocean, causing harmful algal blooms and sea lice infestations in wild fish, are they not drawing on a natural resource?  When a shrimp farmer turns a mangrove swamp into a pile of mulch, does he not deprive other stakeholders of ecosystem services?

So what’s the way forward?  Does it make sense to pursue a third-party certification system?

Notorious notary?

We’ve already taken a few stabs at this, but have come up short each time.  The classic example of certification causing unease is the Marine Stewardship Council — an organization which, although originally predicated on good intentions, now threatens to undermine the very credibility of seafood sustainability on a conceptual level by brandishing its rubber stamp of approval so liberally.  In the aquaculture arena, the current standards (primarily those developed by GLOBALGAP and the ACC/GAA) have been heavily targeted by scientific and environmental groups critical of their weak benchmarks, closed-door standard development process, and industry-dominated governance structures.  The Aquaculture Dialogues, ostensibly based on an open stakeholder process, were supposed to be a response to these shortcomings.  But is a better standard what we should be working towards?

Some would argue that rather than putting our resources into third-party standard development, we should be pressuring governments to institute domestic policies that will eliminate wasteful and polluting aquaculture practices and reward responsible and innovative producers.  But is this feasible?  Do the governments of major aquaculture centers in the developing world — Vietnam, Indonesia, and India come instantly to mine — have the capacity to develop and enforce these policies?

Signs of the times

Signs of the times

Still, it’s not just about the effectiveness of the process.  Equally important is the perception of that effectiveness in the eyes of the consumer.  To put it another way — which course of action will best promote the growth of a sustainable economy by increasing the sales of environmentally responsible seafood?  When you go to your local grocery store to buy seafood, which gives you more confidence at the point of sale: a third-party “sustainable” certification stamp, or a “Product of Thailand” label coupled with the awareness that Thailand has instituted a sustainable aquaculture policy?  Which do you trust?  Which one makes you want to buy fish?

It’s a thorny issue, no doubt about it.  I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this.

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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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Contest results: And the winner is…

Posted by Casson in Contest, News and Announcements

So, the time has finally come to announce the winner of our unagi replacement contest.  We managed to try all of the items that were suggested (with the lamentable exception of rattlesnake) and have come to a clear and unanimous decision about which we feel best replicated the dark, sweet experience that unagi fans have come to crave.

I’ll go over the entries one by one:

1) Portobello mushroom, suggested by Christina

Portobello mushroom: Flavor 3.5/5, Texture 1/5

This actually delivered a very nice dish, albeit not one that ended up working as an unagi substitute. The mushroom held the kabayaki flavor well and, if marinated in some similar flavors, really did deliver that sweetness that eel fans are looking for.  It was a very nice bit in its own right — but as far as the goal of supplanting unagi was concerned, it came up short in texture.  The spongy nature of the mushroom made it difficult to mimic the delicate, flaky nature of eel.  Still, we did eat the whole dish.  I mean, it tasted really good… it just wasn’t what we were looking for.

Arctic char: Flavor 2.5/5, Texture 3/5

2) Arctic char, suggested by Genie

Arctic char is a delicious fish and I’m huge proponent of using it in sushi.  We tried it out for this purpose and, to be honest, it almost seemed a bit of a shame to cover a complex and well-flavored fish with the saccharine syrup that is used to prepare your standard unagi.  All the delicacy of the char was overwhelmed.  Again, not a bad dish, but the char could be so much more on its own.

3) Spanish mackerel, suggested by Richard

Spanish mackerel: Flavor 2/5, Texture 3/5

Spanish mackerel is an interesting fish that is, in my opinion, underused in the sushi world.  Known in Japanese as sawara, Spanish mackerel can be delicious in the hands of a skilled sushi chef that knows how to properly marinate and prepare it.  We wrangled with the idea of marinating it in a typical pre-nigiri style  before turning it into kabayaki, but decided against it in favor of using the natural flavors of the fish.  In the end, the natural flavors of the mackerel were a bit too strong and clashed with the sauce.

Sand dabs: Flavor 4/5, Texture 1/5

4) Sanddabs, suggested by Amy

I cannot even express how much I enjoy sanddabs.  Although they’re found in other areas as well, sand dabs are considered a local delicacy of the Monterey Bay area, these flaky saucer-sized flatfish are a genuine local treat for those visiting or living on the Central California coast.  Unfortunately for the sake of this contest, the flesh of the fillets is simply too delicate and lean to withstand the searing that unagi is subjected to.  It tasted quite nice, but the heat caused the fish to fall apart.

5) Pacific Octopus, suggested by Roshi

Octopus: Flavor 2/5, Texture 1/5

We were unable to locate true North pacific giant octopus, and instead sourced some fresh trap-caught common octopus (as opposed to packaged and prepared product generally used as tako in sushi bars).  To be honest, it was a rather odd dish that we created.  The octopus does not take well to the kind of cooking that is used to prepare unagi, needing instead a prolonged blanching period.  After we blanched the octopus, we attempted to sear it in a kabayaki style, but ended up just charring the flesh.  In the end it was far too chewy.  On the plus side, this suggestion did force us to look around for some sustainable replacements to the standard it-says-product-of-Japan-but-who-knows-where-it-really-comes-from octopus that the conventional sushi industry uses all too frequently.

Eggplant: Flavor 4/5, Texture 4/5

6) Eggplant, suggested by Heather

This was a great call.  The marinated eggplant took the flavors intrinsic to a standard unagi dish extremely well, and while the eggplant itself ended up soft and flaky, we were able to sear it along the sides to change the outer consistency.  The presence of the eggplant skin was invaluable as well, as the marinade, kabayaki sauce, and blowtorch flame combined to create an impressive simulacrum of well-cooked eel skin.

So, in the end, the winner was Heather with her eggplant suggestion.  Score one for vegan sushi!

Heather will receive a copy of Sustainable Sushi as well as a free dinner for two at Tataki Sushi Bar in San Francisco.

Oh, and I should mention — just because the contest is over doesn’t mean that we’re not still looking for new ways to replace unagiEel populations are still crashing and Chinese eel ranches continue to spill more pollution into neighboring wetlands every day.   Until eels have been properly protected and stocks are rebuilding, we will continue to look for inventive options that can serve to make the presence of eel on sushi menus obsolete.

Thanks everyone for your entries, this was really a lot of fun for us.

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Contest update — no snakes to be found

When this contest was first announced, I had guessed that it would result in a relatively quick and painless process of trial and error.  We’d test each entry, judge them internally (and maybe offer samples to customers who happened to be in the restaurant at the time), and announce the winner.  This really doesn’t seem that difficult, right?


The challenge came as a result of the Tataki chefs and I deciding beforehand that we would accept and test all reasonable entries, regardless of whether or not they were in our current supply chain.  I mean, this whole contest was about thinking outside the box, so we wanted to encourage that.  We wanted to be taken by surprise.

Don't tread on me... or eat me, for that matter

Don't tread on me... or eat me, for that matter.

Everything was going fine until someone suggested rattlesnake.  I mean, it’s not a bad idea.  It may have a similar consistency and texture to eel.  Who knows?  We decided that it was a smart entry and that it should be included in the contest.

Unfortunately, it has proven near impossible to get in San Francisco.  In a drawn-out six-week search, I’ve talked to our suppliers, investigated high-end meat stores and exotic importers, even went to Chinatown on a tip we got on Twitter… nothing.  So, in the interest of drawing this contest to a close, I’ve given up.

Unless anyone happens to have some rattlesnake meat and wants to drop it off at Tataki by this weekend, I’m letting it go.  The results of the contest will be posted early next week.  We apologize to Hilary, the one who suggested rattlesnake, for our inability to consider her innovative idea due to the paucity of snakemeat.

Seriously, it’s like we’re in Ireland or something.

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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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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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