Sushi: Raw Deal for our Planet, or Healthy + Sustainable? ~ Elleni Cladis

Via elephant journal
on Jan 25, 2010
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Ever notice how “raw” things tend to make you feel like you pulled the short straw?  Like watching your favorite band play a “raw and uncut” show, only to find out that, without their amps and sound board system, they sound horrible?  Or how, when you get a “raw deal,” you just get the basics and no extra something-something?  Well, that’s how I viewed raw fish – as something that was way overrated and overly basic.  That is, until I tried it.

Three years ago, my father took me to my first sushi restaurant, Sonoda’s, in downtown Denver.  To say that I was suspicious of raw fish would be like saying the CU Buffs had a somewhat disappointing football season.  The platter he ordered was like a “sushi for beginners:” a California roll and a Caterpillar roll, with two pieces of yellowtail nigiri thrown in for good measure, just in case…

While the decision to put the first bite of the California roll into my mouth wasn’t quite as dramatic as the one to step out of the airplane for my first skydiving jump, it was close.  I was prepared to slam into the ground and spit it out…but, wonder of wonders, I liked it.  I mean, I really liked it!  All of it.  And my odyssey into the world of sushi had begun!  It became my obsession.

I was so obsessed, in fact, that I never stopped to think about where the fish came from to make such delectable dishes, or about what price we, and the planet, have to pay for it – until I was assigned to do this research, that is.

In my quest for truth, I stumbled upon an alarming fact: the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates an additional 40 million tons of aquatic food will be required by 2030 – just to maintain current levels of consumption.  Let’s see…40 million tons works out to 80,000,000,000 pounds.  No matter how you slice and dice it, that’s a scary number.

Aquaculture has taken the top spot for the fastest growing form of food production in the world and because of this ever-increasing demand, fish from around the globe are being depleted on a daily basis in numbers that are, indeed, frightening.  In order to try and counteract this continual exhaustion, “fish farms” have been created to grow and, essentially, to cultivate, fish in contained and supervised areas.  Globally, nearly half the fish consumed today by humans is produced by fish farms – and what started out as a solution to over-fishing has now turned into an ecological and economic problem.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the perils of aquaculture include the pollution of the water around them, the depletion of actual wild fish stock (one third of the current annual catch has been used for animal feed for farmed fish), the introduction of risks to wild fish stock, and the endangerment of other sea animals.  Economically, about one billion people in the world, mostly from developing countries, rely on fish for protein.  Many also rely on fishing and aquaculture for jobs, and when fish are depleted in an area, or when a farm is relocated, the people are economically devastated.

The EDF emphasizes this devastation, noting that up to 70 percent of world fish stocks are fully exploited or over-fished, and that catches are declining.  I wish I could report that all of the catches were at least being put to good use; unfortunately, however, more than 14 billion pounds of fish each year are classified as unwanted “by-catch” and wasted.  Yet, because global fishery exports now earn more revenue than any other traded food commodity, one cannot expect an end to this extraordinary waste.

This massive, globalized trading for fish makes for easy accessibility, even in places far removed from fish habitats.  As sushi bar manager at Boulder’s Hapa on the Hill, Richie Link noted, “We get our fish from all over; it really depends on the fish.  We get salmon from Alaska, Scotland and Norway, tuna from Hawaii and Australia, soft-shell crab from Maryland, and eel from Japan.”

Thanks to the combined efforts of fish farms and wild fisheries, and the interconnectedness of the trade, the possibility of importing fresh fish daily has become the standard for many sushi restaurant proprietors, especially for Yazu Kizaki, of Denver’s Sushi Den.  Kizaki owns the Sushi Den with his two brothers, one of whom who still lives in Japan.

He explains, “Every day our youngest brother handpicks exotic and fresh fish for us at the fish market in Japan and, as noted by our tagline, ‘24 hours from the sea to your table,’ we are able to provide the freshest fish possible.  We also have a handful of fish dealers in the U.S., with whom we deal directly, and a fisherman in Alaska we directly purchase from.”

Before sushi aficionados have to weigh their conscience against their palates, there is hope on the horizon.  The EDF has put together lists of “Eco-Best,” “Eco-Ok,” and, “Eco-Worst” fish to help consumers feed their sushi habits without convulsing over guilt.  These lists will enable sushi-nistas to choose fish that not only will satisfy the palate, but also will satisfy the conscience by singling out fish that is good for them, good for the environment, and good for the ocean.

Moreover, there are many organizations working to develop organic standards for farmed fish that benefit, instead of cost, the environment.  These organizations include the EDF, the Blue Ocean Institute, and the Marine Stewardship Council, “the world’s leading certification and eco-labeling program for sustainable seafood.”

Hapa’s Link added, “[The industry] is taking small, but substantive, steps in this process.  Fish farming is starting to be made without as much damage as it used to have.”

Thank goodness.  The more I delved into the sizable ecological footprint left by my addiction to raw fish, I thought I was getting a raw deal.  The good angel on my shoulder kept saying, “Stop eating sushi,” but, the bad angel on the other shoulder insisted, “Forget about the environment.  You love sushi.”  And I was heartbroken because I felt myself losing out to the bad angel.  Now, I know I can have my sushi and enjoy it, too – without stressing too much about Nemo!


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13 Responses to “Sushi: Raw Deal for our Planet, or Healthy + Sustainable? ~ Elleni Cladis”

  1. ccl says:

    Thanks for the EDF link to lists of "Eco-Ok," etc.! At least we can order more conscientiously next time we go for raw!

  2. Dorian Yates says:

    This is an awesome post and I have a few more resources to help people withe the Sushi dilemma… the excellent book Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time, by Casson Trenor, which goes into detail about each kind of fish used in Sushi. There is a companion Website – – with more information about restaurants, science, and fishing. Also the Monterey Bay Aquarium has a Seafood Watch section including a page about sushi –… Happy Sustainable Sushi eating!

  3. Lianne says:

    No matter the fish used – is it ever a sustainable choice to have fish flown from Japan to Denver daily?

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