Catcher in the raw

A new guide to ocean-friendly fish helps you play conscientious selector at the sushi bar.



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Photograph: Roxana Marroquin

Maybe the word sustainability makes you lose your lunch. Fair enough. But there is something you should know: Long before there was a sushi joint on every corner (and prior to the days of refrigeration and global transport), Japan’s raw-fish delicacy was a seasonal one, focused on what was fresh and locally available. Today, a worldwide appetite for sushi has set into motion distribution systems that satisfy the demand for every kind of fish year-round. That may lead to a tasty dinner, but your omakase also contributes to frantic overfishing and environmentally harmful farming practices. Experts predict that if these patterns continue, the oceans will be more or less out of fish by the year 2050.

Even if you can’t be swayed to forgo your toro (an eco-no-no—see “Tuna” below) for clam nigiri (the earth-friendly mollusks are natural filters and clean the water they inhabit), there are still ways to tweak your sushi habits that benefit the oceans. So says Trevor Corson, author of The Story of Sushi and contributor to Ocean Friendly Sushi, a new pamphlet designed to help diners make sea-friendly choices. “For now, the best we can do as consumers is try to focus on what we order,” says Corson. “The fact is that many chefs don’t know the origins of their fish—they probably don’t realize that consumers are concerned. We hope that will change.” For a start, here’s an eco-minded look at the most popular items on a standard sushi menu. Keep these facts in mind and with any luck you’ll still have your pick in 2050.

Photograph: Roxana Marroquin

Yellowtail hamachi

Japan-sourced: In Japan, hamachi, or farmed yellowtail, is bred in net cages with little or no waste treatment. This can cause the proliferation of damaging amounts of algae, which chokes the oxygen out of the water and kills other marine life. More troubling is the fact that farms are stocked by catching young fish from the wild, depleting indigenous populations.
U.S.-sourced: U.S.-farmed hamachi is also kept in net cages, but these are in deeper water and among strong currents, where the waste is more effectively dispersed. Ask where the hamachi is from.

Tuna toro or maguro

Longline-caught varieties: While yellowfin and bigeye populations are doing reasonably well as a result of their rabbitlike reproductive cycles, the fish aren’t ideal for ordering because of the way they’re most often caught: “Longline fishing kills seabirds and sea turtles,” explains Corson.
Atlantic bluefin: Buyer beware: Atlantic bluefin—the “trophy fish” of sushi eating, as Corson calls it—is considered critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Just sayin’.
Troll- and pole-caught albacore, bigeye and yellowfin: These techniques for catching tuna are much safer for other marine life. “Your sushi chef may not know how his tuna is caught, but once you get to know him you can talk about some of these things,” says Corson. “Part of the idea is to get a conversation going.”

Salmon sake

Wild: Wild Alaska salmon is abundant, thanks to their still-livable habitat. Make a point to ask for it. “I’ve seen sushi chefs who have wild salmon, but may not put it on the menu,” says Corson. “It’s a different texture and flavor than the fatty, melt-in-your-mouth farmed salmon that most people are used to.”
Farmed: If the salmon on the menu is Atlantic chinook or coho, you can assume it’s farmed. Salmon farming has been blamed for polluting the Atlantic, overusing antibiotics—which can lead to virulent, drug-resistant strains of bacteria—and spreading diseases to wild fish populations.

Freshwater-eel unagi

This is one to avoid altogether, as current farming practices cause some serious environmental damage. Like the Japanese-bred hamachi, most freshwater eels are farmed in net pens, where waste is not treated before being released into the ocean. Unagi also have a tendency to escape, transferring diseases to wild populations, while the practice of catching wild eel for farming further depletes the population.

Mackerel saba

“Mackerel is a great example of a local fish that works great for sushi,” says Corson. “It’s part of a list of smaller fish—including sardines and striped bass—that show up in traditional Japanese sushi bars and are sustainable.” Indeed, mackerel populations are currently healthy, and the fishing techniques cause little to no bycatching.

Squid ika

Here’s a reason to learn to love squid: The many species of ika grow fast and often reproduce before they’re a year old.

Shrimp ebi

Sweet shrimp (amaebi): These prolific crustaceans are most often caught using a method that successfully reduces the incidental killing of other species.
Shrimp, U.S.-farmed: U.S. shrimp farmers usually treat discharged water to decrease pollution, but the ebi are fed inefficiently high amounts of other species.
Shrimp, imported, farmed and wild-caught: Outside of the U.S., the trawlers that catch most wild shrimp unintentionally kill invertebrates, fish and sea turtles. Foreign shrimp farming, meanwhile, ruins ecosystems and causes water pollution. You won’t always be able to tell where the shrimp came from—the easiest thing to do is to always order the amaebi, or sweet shrimp. “Be curious and find out what your chef knows,” says Corson. “Buy them a beer and tell them how much you love the clams and that you’re gonna pass on the toro. Explain why.” Invite your sushi chef to chat and he’ll likely value you as a customer that much more. Then it’s up to you to educate him about the fish.

Download Ocean Friendly Sushi at, or text “fish” and the species name to 30644 for instant sustainability info.


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