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Guilt-free sushi

Environmentalists tout sustainable fish for the dish.

By By Clare Leschin-HoarContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 28, 2009

One of the sustainable sushi dishes offered at the Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar in San Francisco is the Tataki Roll, which features pole-caught albacore tuna, closed-farmed Arctic char, and pole-caught yellowfin tuna.

Courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium


As consumers’ love affair with seafood continues to grow, so does the pressure on populations of popular fish. Many species such as red snapper, Atlantic halibut, West Coast salmon, and cod are considered overfished. And fishing methods, such as bottom trawling for monkfish and other species, can destroy important habitat.

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So conservation groups have come up with downloadable and printable guides to seafood that are aimed not only at those who enjoy eating fish, but also the growing legions of sushi fans. Sushi bars and restaurants are expected to continue to grow at 10 to 20 percent annually for the next five years, according to a report in Seafood Business magazine. And sushi isn’t confined to restaurants anymore. It’s found at mainstream grocery stores and served in college dining halls. It’s even sold at convenience stores.

Many of the fish used for sushi – Atlantic bluefin tuna and common octopus, for instance – are not considered environmentally sustainable. Diners who want to avoid bad choices may not know what fish they’re really eating, though, since sushi is often given Japanese names.

But some restaurateurs, concerned about dwindling fish populations, are now making it easier for consumers: They’re giving the true name of the fish, telling where it came from, and explaining how it was caught. More important, they’ve taken fish on the “avoid” lists off the menu.

Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar in San Francisco is much more than just a bluefin tuna-free zone, although there’s plenty of common catch absent from the menu here – no farm-raised salmon or shrimp, no unagi (freshwater eel), no tuna caught using long lines.

Instead, chefs and co-owners Kin Lui and Raymond Ho tweak traditional sushi items by substituting fish such as Arctic char that’s been raised in closed systems with little risk of pollution and effect on habitat in place of salmon that’s been farm- raised in an open-cage system. They buy kampachi that’s farmed in the ocean off Hawaii rather than hamachi from farms that may use untraceable feed and raise the fish on land or in freshwater ponds. The shrimp are either trap-caught spot prawns from British Columbia or US wild shrimp.

The chefs even put their own spin on traditional unagi by producing that same sultry, dark taste using sustainable sablefish.

“Our ‘fauxnagi’ is one of our proudest creations,” says Casson Trenor, a partner in Tataki and author of “Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time.”

“The eel-farming industry is incredibly toxic from start to finish,” he says, “and we refuse to bring it in. The ‘fauxnagi’ offers the same unagi experience without any of the negative environmental effects.”

Bamboo Sushi in Portland, Ore., became the first independent restaurant in the US to be certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) when it opened in November 2008. That means that the fish they serve – such as black cod, halibut, scallops, albacore tuna, Alaskan salmon, and Oregon pink shrimp – come from fisheries that have undergone a rigorous assessment for sustainability and environmental responsibility.

“Being certified is most important,” says owner Kristofer Lofgren. “Take buildings, for example. If you want to promote that it’s super eco-friendly, people will ask you about the LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certification. It ensures that you’re paying for something tangible. With us, you don’t have to just trust the chef that the fish is sustainable. We have the certification. That’s where we’re different.”