The Science of Sustainability

Removing the Guesswork Out of Sustainable Sushi

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Unagi, hamachi, ebi, sake, shiromaguro, ahi….What do these names mean? If you are salivating just reading this, you know these popular Japanese sushi terms for eel (fresh water), yellowtail, shrimp, salmon, albacore tuna, and yellowfin tuna, respectively. The American appetite for sushi abounds. But which of these choices are sustainable to consume and which should be avoided? Which restaurants serve sustainable sushi? If you're retrieving your Seafood WATCH mobile phone app (or your pocket guide), kudos to you.

Dragon Roll

Frequenting a sushi restaurant is an artful and unique dining experience. Ornate sushi boats, deft Itamaes (sushi chefs), hand-thrown cups of hot green tea and colorful and dazzling plates of sushi delight all senses. Great care is taken in the creation of each dish. Even the names of dishes are artfully crafted, i.e. the "Dragon," the "Spider," the "Rainbow" and "Alaska" and serve to ontologize their presentation.

It comes as no surprise then that a discerning eye for the sustainability of these incredible edibles oftentimes is veiled by a sense of guilty pleasure. And even if you muster the courage to ask your Itamae for the details of your maguro sashimi, your Itamae will often only be able to verify the species, cut, and grade of the fish.

Seawatch Logo, Yellowfin Tuna
While a quick glance at the Monterrey Bay Aquarium's Seafood WATCH sushi guide steers consumers clear of unagi and hamachi sushi, other items, namely tuna, can be very difficult to ascertain for sustainability. The complexity arises in the way items are listed on the menu. Menu offerings do not always specify type of fish and exclude how the fish was harvested. Notably, the five species of tuna used for sushi, aka maguro, (yellowfin, bigeye, bluefin, albacore, and skipjack) are each harvested in different parts of the world and vary greatly in the way their stocks are managed. Most threatened of them all is wild bluefin tuna, quintessentially referred to as toro – the belly of the fish. Bluefin stocks are over 90% depleted from 1950's levels and should be avoided entirely. And unfortunately, only higher-end sushi restaurants offer their customers 'sustainably' (controversial) farmed Kindai maguro. Albacore ("white tuna" or shiromaguro), if harvested properly, is a good alternative to bluefin. The best option includes albacore harvested from the U.S. or Canadian Pacific via troll or pole-and-lines, though albacore harvested from Hawaii using a longline is a good alternative.

Project FishMap iPhone App

With all of this complexity, how do you find sushi bars that offer sustainably harvested fish? Enter Project FishMap, the latest addition to the Seafood WATCH iPhone app. Project FishMap, in the words of Humberto Kam is a "crowdsourced effort to help people find ocean-friendly seafood, no matter where they live." People can tag restaurants and markets across the United States when they find ocean-friendly seafood. With Project FishMap, now not only can you search mobilely for sustainable sushi bars near you, you can also easily contribute content to the growing database of sustainable seafood restaurants and markets.

Salmon Nigiri

If no sustainable sushi bars exist in your area, have no fear! Also new to Seafood WATCH sushi guide: recommended alternatives to items on the “Avoid” list, and highlights of “Super Green” seafood that is heart-healthy, low in contaminants, and caught or farmed in ways that are good for the oceans. Also, from their website you can explore new flavors, like arctic char (iwana) and geoduck(mirugai), from the "Green List" that you've never tried before. Before indulging in your next hedonistic sushi delight, consider informing yourself about the fish you will inevitably be allured by.

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Category: Biology, Engineering, Partners, Sustainable Food, Sustainable Health

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Kim Vincent

About the Author ()

Kim Vincent is the QUEST Content Intern for the 2011 winter / spring term. Kim is a substitute teacher for Fremont Union High School District specializing in biology and physiology education. She has a degree in biochemistry from UC Davis as well as a M.S. in molecular, cellular, and integrative physiology from UC Davis. Currently, Kim is taking courses at De Anza College in film and electronic media. As an active member of her community, Kim has performed volunteer research with the Hopkins Marine Lab, UC Santa Cruz, and the Cal Academy of Sciences. Kim also coaches junior volleyball and enjoys hiking along the south and mid-peninsula.
  • Crowdsourcing.org

    Kudos to the developers of project FishMap! This is another proof that crowdsourcing has indeed reached another branch of science. This is another evidence of crowd science, http://www.crowdsourcing.org/l/525

  • rebecca

    i totally used this last week while out at sushi! thanks for sharing!