These days, if you’re lucky enough to find yourself at a Michelin-starred restaurant, it’s an almost foregone conclusion that the ingredients will be sourced locally, seasonally, and sustainably.
But amid all the devotion to local terroir, foraging, heirloom produce, and pasture-raised meat from coddled livestock and fowl, there’s one segment of the restaurant industry that remains stubbornly in opposition to the slow food movement. In fact, when it comes to seafood, many of the world’s best restaurants fly in an endangered species for its patrons to feast on a nightly basis.
The last bluefin tuna
Right now we’re in what is basically a bank run on Pacific bluefin tuna.
“Pacific bluefin tuna is at 2.6% [of its former population] and subject to overfishing,” says Amanda Nickson, director of Global Tuna Conservation at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “We think there’s a very grave danger of it disappearing unless action is taken in the next two years.”
As population has cratered, the price for the fish has skyrocketed, with one Japanese restaurant paying a record $1.76 million for a 490 lb fish in 2013. Japanese fisherman, lured by the possibility of landing a fish that could make them rich, go to ever more desperate and illegal measures to scoop the remaining tuna out of the ocean, using sophisticated sonar to pierce deep into the waves, and using long lines to reel in fish out of exclusions zones, where they are forbidden from entering. Over 90% of the Pacific bluefin tuna caught in 2013 were too young to reproduce—which means the last generation of the species could have been on any of our plates. And because it’s a top-level predator, the loss of bluefin tuna would upset the balance of marine life and lead to boom and crash cycles in smaller organisms.
In fact, bluefin is just the poster child of overfishing—if we continue trawling the oceans at our current pace, all fish stocks could collapse by 2048, leading some to posit we are at peak wild fish. “If we’re not at the peak, we’re close to it,” says Lee Crockett, director of US Oceans at Pew Charitable Trust. “A bunch of species we’re past the peak, we’ve overexploited them.” As each population has collapsed, fishermen have moved onto a new species, a process called “serial overfishing.”
Crockett points to reef fish as an example. “These are the snappers and groupers that are caught together, so if one species is in decline, the fishermen switch to more abundant species. This has led to many of the stocks in the reef fish complex becoming overfished.”
Even Jiro Ono, the world-famous Japanese chef of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, has warned that it’s getting harder and harder to find quality sushi ingredients.
And yet, sushi chefs have not come out as proponents of sustainable fish. In fact, Japanese restaurants in the US tend to brag about flying tuna straight in from Japan, a carbon-intensive sourcing strategy to say the least. Take some of the highest-rated sushi restaurants in New York City: Ichimura reportedly serves bluefin, food critic Adam Platt loves the four grades of tuna at Kura, Sushi Azabu has it, and 15 East does too, along with a long list of sea creatures that that are under threat, like red snapper, squid, goldeye, kohada, and eel.
The sushi restaurant Shuko sources their bluefin from a sustainable farm in Spain, but farmed bluefin tuna (or as the experts like to call it, “ranched”) is hardly better than wild caught. Most “farmed” bluefin are just juveniles caught at sea and towed to land for fattening. Only a small handful of research facilities in Japan and Spain have succeeded in actually breeding bluefin from eggs—an exceedingly difficult process. You’ll see closed-lifecycle bluefin called Kindai on the menu. But these and other farmed bluefin still require feed made from smaller fish, which is resource intensive and pushes overfishing pressure down the line.
Nobu infamously put a note on its menu a few years back asking diners to not order the bluefin tuna—while keeping bluefin tuna on the menu. The Japanese chefs, apparently, would not hear of losing their favorite ingredient.
How to save a fish
Protecting a species of fish is shockingly simple: Set a quota based on science, and enforce it. Take, for example the Eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna. (There are three genetically distinct species of Bluefin—Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern—and two stocks of Atlantic tuna that rarely mix and interbreed—Western, which spawn in the Gulf of Mexico, and Eastern, which spawns in the Mediterranean. ) For a decade, the international body that sets quotas ignored the science and continue to allow overfishing of the Eastern Atlantic Bluefin. But in 2010 they slashed the quota down to the scientific recommendation. “Here we are six years later and the stock has experienced significant growth; by next year it’s possible that it will be fully recovered,” says Shana Miller, director of the Ocean Foundation. “If we can reduce fishing pressure [bluefin tuna]will come back.”
That story has repeated itself across American fisheries: 39 fish stocks have been rebuilt in the past two decades, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and overfishing is at its lowest level since record keeping began in 1997.
Unfortunately, tuna and other fish are still under massive pressure from overfishing elsewhere in the world. “Last time I checked, 90% of the fish that are sold in the US are imported,” Crockett says. “If you’re American, and you’re buying fish, it’s almost certain it comes from somewhere else where they don’t have the same environmental standards.” That means it’s up to consumers to try to figure out whether they are leading to the demise of an entire species of fish or not.
Conscious foodies have turned to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app, which has been downloaded over 1.5 million times. It sorts fish into three categories: Best Choice (green), Good Alternative (yellow), and Avoid (red). This is an imperfect solution, though. Flounder, for example, falls into all three categories, depending on what type it is, where it comes from, and how it was fished. Is it Yellowtail from New England caught by bottom trawl? What about Summer flounder from the U.S. North Atlantic caught by hand line?
Good luck extracting this information from your waiter. “When I go to a sushi restaurant, I always ask what species of tuna it is and where it is caught,” says Miller. “And often they don’t even know what species of tuna.” A 2013 study found that one-third of the 1,215 fish samples researchers bought at restaurants and grocery stores were mislabeled as a completely different species, and often not even distant cousins.
Sushi bars were the most likely to mislead. The authors of the study said they couldn’t figure out exactly where the deception lay: with the restaurant, the purveyor that sold the restaurant the fish, or the fishermen themselves.
“It’s hard to fake chicken or beef, but there are so many species of fish,” says David Torchiano, co-founder of the New York City sustainable sushi pop-up restaurant Mayanoki. “Seafood changes so many hands it’s hard to keep track of it, unless you’re getting it from people who get it directly from the boats.”
East coast, west coast, New England, gulf coast sushi
Sustainable sushi restaurants designed to assuage the conscious fish lover’s guilt are starting to open. There’s Mayanoki, which pops up every few months somewhere else in New York, and the new sushi restaurant Chisai in Brooklyn, which serves what they call “New England-style sushi.” Tataki in San Francisco, which offers local fish and a vegetarian menu, was founded by a Greenpeace sustainability expert. Bamboo Sushi, a sustainable chain in Denver and Portland, is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. The James Beard-nominated Miya Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut features sushi made from invasive species, a tactic used by conscious foodies to incentivize hunters and fisherman to go after invasive and destructive animals and expunge them from an ecosystem.
These restaurants encourage the consumption of local, wild American fish and fish farmed responsibly, with vegetarian feed, free of antibiotics, and pollution. As a bonus, these locally caught species tend to be less expensive than the imported alternative. It seems like an obvious solution: let’s all start eating local fish and call it a day.
But there’s one problem: the sushi chefs.
At the beginning of their experiment, the founders of Mayanoki had a Japanese chef crafting the sashimi, but when he was hired away, they had a hard time finding an Asian sushi chef to replace him. They finally hired Jeff Miller, a Florida-trained sushi chef.
“Every other chef besides Jeff has not been willing to change what they serve,” Torchiano says. “Most chefs that we were trying to talk to, they think every American wants to eat tuna, salmon, and yellowtail. They’re trained in this trade–they’re more focused on executing well instead of experimenting.” Execution, and a focus, above all, on serving only the highest quality fish.
Chef Daisuke Nakazawa of Sushi Nakazawa has called his style “New York sushi,” because of its focus on sourcing local fish when it can. In most sushi restaurants, the chef himself selects the fish, but Nakazawa has Neal Covington, who holds the unique title of Maritime Liaison.
“We use whatever the best product is that will fit into our omakase,” Covington says. Omakase is the style of sushi in which the customer sits at the bar and is served a chef’s choice of sushi and sashimi, piece by piece. The fish should be eaten within seconds of being served, leaving no time or leeway for the customer to ask how and where the fish was caught.
Nakazawa does source bluefin tuna, but from the East Coast, because Atlantic bluefin is fairly well managed and—this is important—because American fishermen know how to handle this particular species of fish.
Because Japan imports bluefin from the US and has a financial interest in making sure it’s high quality, Japanese fishermen have taught their American counterparts how to properly handle the fish, including a method called ikejime, when fishermen live-bleed the fish so that it doesn’t get too stiff too quickly, or yield bloody slices of sashimi.
But American fishermen don’t tend to extend that level of care to other fish, even to the perfectly edible species caught alongside the “desirable” ones—which they call “bycatch.” The bycatch is thrown back into the ocean or given away, because fishermen think restaurants only want snapper, grouper, and tuna. But if high-end eaters are willing to pay $500 for the privilege of munching on moss, what’s to say they wouldn’t be thrilled to try the star gazer, an ugly-as-sin fish with eyes on the top of it’s head? It’s normally thrown back into the ocean, but Covington is game to try it.
“We have the most coastline of any country in the world, and tons of fish that we could utilize, but we don’t,” he says.
Yuji Haraguchi, the founder of Osakana, a Japanese fish market in Brooklyn, has come up against the same challenge in trying to source locally. “The [sushi] chefs believe the fish from the US is not usable for sushi because of the way it’s handled,” Haraguchi says. He’s not impressed with Whole Foods’ fish department, which he characterizes as dirty and low quality. “When it comes to domestic fish, if you order 50 lbs of fish, maybe 20 lbs of fish is good for sushi consumption.”
It’s an irony that because the Japanese are more adept at handling fish, fish flash-frozen and flown across the world to New York are often fresher than mishandled fish dumped off a Long Island boat onto a New York dock. Covington and Osakana will reject any fillet that is bruised, is flaky and falls apart when raw, or just smells too strongly like fish, indicators that the fish was mishandled or poorly packed and is no longer fresh.
To Covington, it’s less about sourcing the most well-known species, and more about sourcing whatever tastes best and is highest quality. “We have a ton of stuff that people consider bycatch. Thornyheads, barred knifejaw—all the weird looking ones, we like that stuff,” Covington says. Haraguchi says he would use a lot more porgy and sea robin, for example, if American fishermen could get their act together.
Another bonus is that if US fishermen could learn how to properly handle a wider range of fish species, they could command more money for all the fish they catch, even the ones you’ve haven’t heard of or tried yet. And that would take pressure off the banner species like grouper, snapper, and bluefin.
“Sourcing is important, but the American consumer is skipping respect,” Haraguchi says. “Customers ask where it’s from, which is an easy question to ask, but sustainability versus traceability are two different things. You could have perfect tracking, but you could spoil the fish if you don’t handle it properly.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Sushi Nakazawa’s Maritime Liaison as Neal Cunningham. His name is actually Neal Covington.