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Better sushi, but without bluefin tuna

Giving up this endangered fish could promote authentic – and tastier – sushi.

By Trevor Corson / August 28, 2009

New York

Big things are happening this summer for a big fish. If conservationists get their way, the Atlantic bluefin tuna, a majestic swimmer that's long been overharvested for the sushi trade, may soon receive protection as an endangered species. Many sushi lovers are understandably upset, because they don't want to give up their favorite meal.

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But I sit down for a sushi meal at some of the best restaurants in America almost every week – as part of my efforts to educate Americans about sushi tradition – and I can safely say that giving up sushi altogether to save the bluefin would be a terrible idea. In fact, the plight of the bluefin is an opportunity for us to enjoy better sushi than ever.

The bluefin tuna is a tiger of the sea, with glistening red flesh that can fetch tens of thousands of dollars per fish. As sushi has spread across America and around the globe, the bluefin has been decimated.

The situation is so dire that efforts to protect the fish are finally gaining traction.

In May, a group of celebrities, including Sting, Elle Macpherson, and Charlize Theron, spoke out against the consumption of bluefin, and in June, Prince Albert of Monaco spearheaded a commitment to list the Atlantic population as an endangered species.

In July, Nicolas Sarkozy pledged France's support, followed immediately by leaders in Britain. And earlier this month, a former Japanese fisheries minister declared that even the Japanese will have to get used to eating a lot less bluefin. Now the media and blogosphere are alight with talk of culinary doom.

The end of sushi, it seems, is upon us.

But such talk could hurt the bluefin even more.

Sushi connoisseurs tend to be obsessive folks – I know because I am one. If we think we must sacrifice good sushi to save the bluefin, we may just as well keep eating bluefin.

Indeed, the best-known sushi chef in the world, Nobu Matsuhisa, has refused to remove Atlantic bluefin from his 24 luxury eateries around the globe, despite increasing pressure from activists, because he believes connoisseurs won't dine in his restaurants without it. A Nobu spokesman pledged to list the fish on Nobu's London menu as "endangered," but the company then reneged, calling it only "environmentally threatened."