Read Before You Eat: Sushi

Disclaimer: As you may know, sushi does not literally refer to raw fish.  Sushi refers to a piece of seafood or other item draped across a bed of packed sticky rice dabbed with wasabi. What Americans typically call sushi is actually maki, and that refers to fish and vegetables rolled together with rice in seaweed sheets.  Finally, sashimi (pictured below) is just the fish, and it is usually served with soy sauce and wasabi for dipping.  So, as you go through this post, please note that I am using "sushi" as a blanket term for all three items, but the concern is with the fish being used in these dishes. 

Hi, Rachel here. I'm going to tell you a little story about sushi. When asked to make a list of foods that I love, sushi is squarely in the top ten every time. I had my first sushi when I was a senior in high school.  It was before sushi was really popular, and we didn't have really any sushi options out in the suburbs. My friends and I took the train into the city and went to a sushi place in Lakeview. My mother hates fish, and holds any seafood--raw or otherwise--highly suspect, so I had her whispering in the back of my head that eating raw fish would certainly result in an early demise. Mother-induced anxiety notwithstanding, I tried several different rolls that day, and I was hooked.

Sashimi at Next, one of the few places in the Midwest I feel comfortable eating raw fish.
Sashimi at Next, one of the few places in the Midwest I feel comfortable eating raw fish.

Fitting with my enthusiasm for basically any food I love, I ate sushi everywhere I went: Chicago, Grand Rapids, Toledo, Denver, etc. I even had a make-your-own sushi party for my 24th birthday. I spent a summer in Japan, and of course, I ate fresh, flavorful sushi there. Sushi in Japan is not a daily occurrence, it's more of a special occasion food. One morning, we had the opportunity to visit the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo and eat fresh, never frozen tuna. Talk about an idyllic experience. Another summer, I lived in San Francisco, where there are dozens of sushi restaurants, and ample opportunity for fresh, local sushi.  Tokyo and San Francisco were completely appropriate places to eat sushi, sadly, the Midwest was not.

Gradually, though, and somewhat against my will, I started to learn a series of facts which have made it very difficult for me to eat sushi fish, especially tuna. Tuna (bigeye, blue fin, and yellow fin) is relentlessly over-fished. They are often fished for using giant trolling nets.  The end result being any and all fish swimming among the tuna are trapped and killed as well. This includes everyone's favorite underwater mammal, the dolphin, which are easily the next most intelligent species on the planet after humans. Also, juvenile tuna are caught along with the adults, and they are not big enough to be worth a good market price, but they are not thrown back because the fishing method does not allow that type of discretion. So, future generations of delicious, flavorful tuna are being stunted by these fishing methods. 

Delicious, flavorful, and over-fished though they may be, there are reasons not to eat tuna for your own health. You ever wonder why pregnant ladies are not supposed to eat fish? It's because of mercury, or rather methylmercury, which is the form of mercury found in the ocean. It is absorbed by fish and passed on to humans when we eat the fish. We can all shrug off the effects of mercury on our systems, but you do not have to be completely toxic to have been affected by it. The EPA can back me up on this one. The mercury from industrial pollution gets dumped in the ocean, the little fish absorb it or eat it on the micro-organisms they consume, the bigger fish eat the little fish and all the mercury in the little fish stays in the bigger fish. A giant, cow-sized tuna would have the highest concentration of mercury. Giant, cow-sized tuna are the backbone of the sushi industry. (That and the fake crab sticks in the California rolls.)

Now you are thinking, well, there goes the spicy tuna roll, but everything else should be fine, right? I can still eat sushi minus tuna, right? Umm, well, basically all fish used in sushi are overfished, that's one thing.  Also you should know members of The Unification Church--a.k.a. the Moonies--own basically all the commercial fisheries in the world. This Chicago Tribune article is from 2006, but I have found no newer information to the contrary. While the article is fascinating, and certainly required reading for anyone who eats sushi, the Cliff Notes version goes as follows:  Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the self-proclaimed messiah, decided that controlling the world's fish markets would be an extremely profitable way to support his Unification Church. He decided this in the '70s and revealed his master plan to his church in the '80s (1980 to be exact, the transcript of his speech outlining the plan is here), and has been successfully living the dream ever since. For an idea of how ubiquitous Moon's True World Foods is, check out their company website. Regardless of how you may feel about the Unification Church and their practices, a monopoly in any business is dangerous and the danger is increased when it has to do with the food system. (See: anything Monsanto has ever done.)

Ok, so sushi is killing the oceans, potentially dangerous for consumption, and all the fish is owned by one giant corporation. Is it possible to find sushi that is safe, delicious, and sustainable? Yes, of course, you just have to know where to look. First off, the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch website will give you an idea of what fish are over-fished and which ones are still safe to eat. They also have a handy app for your smart phone. We also like this book, which goes through most seafood you might eat and ranks it accordingly to sustainability. Second, choosing to only eat sustainably caught sushi fish will require you to research your sushi restaurants. Kristl and I recently had local, line caught raw tuna in Hawaii that was as fresh and buttery as tuna ever was, and we were able to eat it without guilt. There are a few sustainable sushi restaurants in San Francisco I unfortunately didn't know about when I was there. If you are ever in San Fran, check out Tataki Sushi Bar. Do some research before you eat sushi, most major cities on the west coast have restaurants trying to provide some sort of sustainable raw fish option. When it comes down to it, though, here in the Midwest, where we are either landlocked or snuggling up to a tuna-free Great Lake, we have limited sushi options.

We both love sushi, and while sometimes the pull is too strong and we give in, we usually stick to a no-sushi diet in Chicago. We will occasionally go out to dinner with folks for sushi, but order only veggie and sustainable fish varieties. You would be surprised how delicious some sweet potato tempura or sauteed eggplant rolls can be, when you are looking for sushi flavor without the fish. For the most part, we are content to forgo sushi while in the Midwest, and eat lots of it when we are in places with sustainable sushi restaurants.

We didn't get into this at all, but there is also a serious problem with fish being mislabeled. You very well may not be eating the fish you think you are.  This NPR report is a great primer on the subject.