Green Sushi Advice

Sushi lovers, it’s time to say sayonara to toro (aka bluefin tuna). Hamachi (yellowtail), too. And for the time being, you can forget about ordering those freshwater eel and avocado rolls -- unagi is also a big environmental no-no.

Cover of Monterey Bay Aquarium's new sushi pocket guide. (Courtesy Monterey Bay Aquarium).

That’s the latest advice from three ocean conservation groups that are poised to launch wallet-sized sushi guides next week. As of Oct. 22, the consumer guides will be available online via Blue Ocean Institute, Environmental Defense Fund and Monterey Bay Aquarium. Each group has its own card with a unique design and layout (Blue Ocean’s list offers detailed descriptions about each species, for example), but the message is the same no matter which card you print out: avoid red-listed sushi and seek out more abundant and better managed species.

All three groups also single out species that are high in contaminants, including mercury or PCBs, most of which are on the red lists, but be sure to check the yellow (sorta okay to go, like a yellow traffic signal) lists as well. Contaminant contenders in the yellow lists include Hawaiian albacore tuna and blue crab.

They’re hoping that the next time you get a hankering for raw fish and vinegared rice, you’ll consider “greener” choices, such as wild Alaskan salmon (sake), North American Albacore tuna (shiro maguro) or Pacific halibut (hirame), to name a few. They’re considered “best” because they come from well-managed fisheries with little or no risk of contaminants (as determined by the ocean conservation community).

The sushi guides will also be available via text message as part of the groups' mobile phone offerings, featured in this space earlier this year.

By Kim ODonnel |  October 17, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Eco-Bites , Seafood , Sustainability
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Kim, I'm so glad you're giving this some space on your blog, but I want to advise your readers that just saying "sake" or "shiro maguro" isn't enough because it doesn't specify the source of the fish. "Sake" just means salmon, for example, and pretty much all salmon served in sushi restaurants is farmed.

It's very difficult to get salmon that's consistently fatty enough for use as sashimi or in sushi without going to the farmed stuff, especially if you're eating at a place that's doing sushi as the trend of the moment instead of very seriously.

You can try asking your waiter or the chef about the provenance of the shiro maguro or whatever, but nine times out of ten they're not going to know unless you're at a pretty serious (and expensive) place, and maybe not even then. They may be careful about inspecting the fish they accept from their suppliers for quality, but without asking where it was sourced.

I hope that more sushi restaurants start to serve their dishes with an eye towards health and sustainability.

Posted by: fyi | October 18, 2008 2:50 AM

Seems like a lot of work when there is plenty of vegetarian sushi available.

Posted by: Rockville, MD | October 18, 2008 8:00 AM

Fyi, such an important point that you make. One thing I think we can do as consumers is to bring a sushi card to our favorite sushi spots and share it with the management, let them know how they can order these cards, which I believe are free, so that they know what their customers are learning . Right now, Monterey Bay Aquarium has an order form on its Web site, and a toll-free number if you want to do more a more expedited order.
Just wanted to share an experience that just happened the other night: I was at a restaurant in Seattle, more groovy than fancy, with a menu of small plates and pan-Asian influence. I was interested in a grilled salmon collar. Asked server where salmon came from, she said, I think, it's local, which I interpreted as Washington state. Asked her if she could verify. She came back a minute later, she says, "sorry, no, it's from Chile."
This is how we can empower ourselves when dining out. Ask, ask, ask. It's not perfect, but it's better than not asking at all.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | October 18, 2008 12:29 PM

I thought that some Hamachi was farmed. Can you check for us?

Posted by: Michael Slott | October 18, 2008 2:13 PM

Michael Slott, yes, some hamachi is indeed farmed, and the stuff coming from Japan is what concerns ocean conservation groups. Here's what Blue Ocean Institute says about Japanese farmed hamachi on its sushi guide:

"Japanese Yellowtail is one of the most economically important marine species farmed in Japan. Yellowtail is farmed in net cages with little or no treatment of effluent, which can cause localized pollution and damaging red tides. The biggest concern, however, is the dependence on wild juveniles to stock farms."

The hamachi farmed in the U.S. gets a slighter better "yellow" rating, but I've not been able to source the farm. When I do, i'll let you know.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | October 18, 2008 3:52 PM

Makes me want to go eat whale sushi. I am soooo sick of people telling me what I should or may not eat. Maybe spotted owl as a main course. I lived in China for almost 3 years and witnessed banquets serving endangered species (I even have the pictures) but nobody tells them what they should do. Too many people have way too much time on their hands. Now excuse me, I am going to dine on tuna belly.

Posted by: Michael | October 19, 2008 11:10 AM

Michael wrote: I lived in China for almost 3 years and witnessed banquets serving endangered species (I even have the pictures) but nobody tells them what they should do.
Michael, it's nice that you hold China up as a moral standard for the world. I'm sure the Chinese government appreciates your saying that they stay out of the personal lives of their citizens more than the US does.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 19, 2008 2:02 PM

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