When it comes to fresh seafood, many of us consider sushi the grand master. But these days, with the health of the environment pushing us to make more sustainable choices when it comes to what we put into our bodies, texture and flavor are not the only criteria we use when we decide what or where to eat.
For sushi lovers, finding sustainable options is possible, but certainly not easy. Some of the most popular menu items are among the worst choices when it comes to the health of our oceans. The good news is that there are now tools to help consumers make educated decisions at the dinner table.
“Right now, I think we all know that the oceans are in trouble. We are basically fishing our seas dry,” says Vicki Nichols Goldstein, founder and executive director of Boulder’s Colorado Ocean Coalition.
Nichols Goldstein, who started the nonprofit about two years ago, has dedicated her career to ocean conservation. She’s lived on both U.S. coasts, she says during a recent phone interview, and when she moved to Boulder, she saw a real need for an organization like hers, which aims to educate the public about fishing techniques, which species are at risk and how the transportation of fish contributes to its carbon footprint. Restaurants are a major focus of her efforts, and among them, naturally, are those that sell sushi.
Toro. Unagi. Tako. Maguro. Hamachi. These are just a few popular sushi-menu items that, like it or not, are generally unsustainable choices, according to Monterey Bay Aquarium’s extensive Seafood Watch program, which breaks down fish options and provides guidance on which to avoid and which are OK for the environment. At least one of these items is on the menu at every sushi restaurant in Boulder County.
“The big red flag is the bluefin tuna,” Nichols Goldstein says. When served as sushi, bluefin tuna is often called toro or “fatty tuna.”
“It was a majestic species,” she says. “But because of technology and severe cutthroat harvesting, they really are at risk of going extinct in the next decade or so.”
According to Seafood Watch, 90 percent of the freshwater eel (unagi) sold in the U.S. is farm-raised, but instead of starting with eggs, the farms are stocked with eels taken from the wild, which puts pressure on the wild species. Octopus (tako) is on the program’s “avoid” list because of a practice known as bottom trawling — basically casting out a huge net that catches more than just octopus and is contributing to the depletion of many ocean species.
“We’ve become so efficient at pulling everything out of the sea. We need to be smarter about our fishing techniques,” Nichols Goldstein says.
Other fish on the menu, like shake (salmon), maguro (tuna) and hamachi (yellowtail), can be great options if they’ve been caught sustainably. The only way to know this is to ask. Much of the salmon served in restaurants, for example, is farmed. While this may sound like it’s a sustainable option because the fish were raised to be eaten, the reality is that more wild resources are used to feed fish in farms than come out of them, according to Seafood Watch. Hamachi and maguro are tricky, too, because they can refer to any number of different species.
Clearly, it can be difficult to know which fish are OK to eat. The good news is that there are some consistently sustainable options available locally: mackerel, striped bass, shrimp, scallops, crab and imitation crab and lobster. Some local sushi restaurants offer two options when it comes to salmon, and wild is the best choice. To keep it all straight, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has a printable seafood guide you can bring with you when you eat out, and there’s a Seafood Watch app available for iPhone and Droid. (Bonus: They also offer info on mercury and other health risks linked to each species.)
“The important thing about the sustainable seafood movement is that we as consumers have an opportunity to play a role in the problem — and the solution,” says Nichols Goldstein, who adds that it’s a fantasy of hers to work with local restaurants to display where their seafood comes from and how it is caught. For that to be possible, though, the consumers must demand it.
“The bottom line for us is asking,” she says. “It’s a journey of pursuing, ‘Where did my fish come from?’ ‘Was it caught sustainably?’ ‘Is it something I feel good about eating?’”