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Can Sushi Be Sustainable?

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Nov 27, 2012 8:20PM


Sometimes, as Americans, we tend to think that we have a monopoly on more. The more desirable a product, the more we want it and the more we feel we’re entitled with the power of our pocketbooks. And as true as that is, it’s becoming truer for more and more of the wider world as well. We all want more of the good stuff, including sushi, and it may be making us into monsters.

The documentary film Sushi: The Global Catch, which played at the Siskel Film Center last week, reminded us that sushi, particularly blue fin tuna, may be too tasty for its own good. While the film fails to foretell the predator fish’s immediate demise, it warns us that we’re grossly overfishing its bounty while endangering the balance of the ocean’s ecosystems. Sadly, there’s nothing new there. What is relatively recent is the growing commercial viability of a possible solution—aqua farming—and the controversy this technology is spawning anew.

In the film, Casson Trenor, Greenpeace activist and San Francisco sustainable sushi restaurateur, takes issue with Australian producers of blue-fin tuna bred in South Pacific aqua farms. Trenor, who spoke at the film’s premier at the Siskel, argues that aqua farming merely gives First World consumers a short-term eco-conscious alternative without addressing long-term balance and sustainability. Industry supporters counter by saying that aqua farming offers a pragmatic solution amid the world’s growing demand to sate their umami pleasure centers, China’s not least of all.

We left carrying a pocket-sized "Rite Bite" guide from the Shedd Aquarium advising us which seafood to avoid and which we could continue to eat in good conscience (there's also an app). And while the size of the green-light list is reassuringly long, the fish best avoided are also our favorites, including most species of tuna, Atlantic salmon, and yellowtail—everything that usually makes it into our maki—reminding us, perversely, how much easier it is to save sustainability for someone else and enjoy what we’ve developed a taste for, especially when it’s there so readily for the offing.

So for us personally, aqua farming makes sense. It allows us to enjoy our sushi and eat it too while minimizing our aquatic footprint. But the easiest path is rarely the best and we see Trenor’s point: The only truly sustainable sushi is that which avoids overfishing species like blue fin tuna altogether, however untenable that may be in the world in which we live.

To learn more, watch the trailer below and look for Sushi: The Global Catch on Netflix and in video stores.