In the past few decades, sushi has become a popular dish not just in Japan, where it was refined and perfected, but also around the world. Tasty and healthy, sushi appeals to those who enjoy finely prepared cuisine that isn’t high in fat, is rich in vitamins and minerals, and is fun to eat to boot. In recent years, however, this delectable dish has become a victim of its own success. The massive demand for fresh fish has resulted in overfishing, decimating global oceanic populations. As concerns regarding the stability of ocean ecosystems gain greater visibility, the problems associated with sushi production have become increasingly apparent. 

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The Story of Sushi

The early roots of sushi date back more than a thousand years. It is said to have originated in China in the 4th century, primarily as a means of pickling and preserving. These early foods were very different than the sushi of today: Composed of fermented rice and fish, the prepared concoction was left to sit for months before being consumed. It was a way of extending the usable lifespan of fish, which otherwise goes bad fairly quickly. In the early 19th century, sushi as we know it today was created in Edo (now Tokyo), where fresh fish, vinegar, salt, and rice were combined in a process that took only a few minutes.

In the late ’60s and ’70s, sushi began to appear in restaurants in California. It proved to be a huge success and soon spread to other American cities, such as Chicago and New York. Today, different styles of sushi have emerged, some of which eschew fish altogether, but the basic formula is fresh fish served with rice and a variety of condiments, like wasabi, ginger, and soy sauce.

A Global Catch

The seemingly insatiable demand for sushi has caused wild fish populations to become depleted as more and more creatures are caught. The numbers of bluefin tuna – a popular sushi staple – are estimated to be only 4 percent of what they would be without commercial fishing. One single 489-pound Pacific Bluefin sold in 2013 for about $1.8 million, a testament to the species’ scarcity and desirability.

Many educated observers have commented that we need to start treating fish like livestock and raising them in captivity. This would allow producers to supply as much fish as the market demands without raising the possibility of hunting certain types of fish to near-extinction. Meanwhile, national and international regulatory bodies have been promulgating rules designed to replenish wild fish stocks by placing restrictions on fishing activity. Creative substitutions, like the recent development of a tomato-based sushi replacement, have a role to play as well.

With hundreds of types of sushi available, sourced from countless vendors, it’s not easy for regular customers of sushi bars and restaurants to know how to fight this problem. Restaurateur and author Casson Trenor has created a useful framework called “4S” to help patrons buy and eat sustainable sushi:

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Small: Smaller fish tend to breed in larger numbers than their larger counterparts, so overfishing poses less of a problem to them.

Seasonal: By taking advantage of fish that are only available at certain seasons, you’ll be acting in accordance with the ocean’s natural cycles.

Silver: Fish served with their silver skins still intact are called hikari mono, and they usually come from well-run fishing establishments.

Shellfish: Clams, oysters, mussels, and mollusks are usually grown without serious environmental concerns.

Besides using the above recommendations, you can download the Seafood Watch app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It allows you to search for restaurants and shops in your area that deal in ocean-friendly sushi. The iOS and Android app also contains information on sushi ingredients and terminology.

Our marine surroundings are under threat from many quarters. According to Epcor, after the Industrial Revolution in the 1700’s and 1800’s, our oceans have become about 30 percent more acidic due to its absorption of about a quarter of the greenhouse gasses we emit from burning fossil fuels. This, in addition to changing climatic conditions, has the potential to negatively affect almost all wildlife. A depletion of marine creatures, including fish, won’t do anything to help the situation.

Only by acting in a responsible manner can we hope to preserve the custom of eating sushi. Japan has shared this cultural export with people across the globe, and it would be a shame if we lose it because of gluttonous greed and unsustainable fishing practices.

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