Why Our Love of Sushi Is Devastating the Ocean and How to Make a Change

It’s a bit of a dire time to be a sushi lover and an environmentally conscious human. (Image:  pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
It’s a bit of a dire time to be a sushi lover and an environmentally conscious human. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

It’s a bit of a dire time to be a sushi lover and an environmentally conscious human. Even as 85 percent of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, depleted, or in recovery, I’m willing to bet that wherever you’re reading this article from, your favorite local sushi restaurant is still bustling with customers at any given hour on any given day. Worse still, fish like large tuna and salmon, which are staring down the barrel of extinction in some cases, are among the most common, delicious, and sought-after sushi fare. All this fish has to come from somewhere, and there’s no magic pill to replace what our global sushi addiction is taking from the ocean.

Studies over the past decade have anticipated that seafood may disappear altogether by as early as 2050 unless humans change their ways. Realistically, the best thing you can do to play no part in the rapid collapse of the world’s seafood stocks is to stop eating fish-based sushi altogether (gasp!). But if that’s not an option, this article will both help you to understand the impact of sushi on global fish stock depletion and equip you to be a smarter seafood consumer by asking questions and purchasing only seafood sourced in the most sustainable ways.

It’s not all sushi’s fault, of course. The global appetite for seafood goes far beyond just one type of seafood cuisine, but with the global rise in the popularity of sushi and the fact that good sushi relies on high-quality, highly demanded (and often endangered) fish species, it hasn’t contributed positively to the imminent problem of seafood stock collapse. Having said that, this article is for all avid seafood lovers to consider, not just sushi lovers. Don’t smugly read this as you eat your fish and chips without taking on board the exact same facts. Let’s take a sobering look at some of them.

Asking the right questions

Eating seafood sustainably generally begins and ends with your restaurant servers or fishmongers. If you don’t ask them where the seafood comes from, they probably won’t tell you. If you ask them and they don’t know, you can make a choice to take your business elsewhere. Ultimately, if every customer asked servers about the origin of the fish on their delicious sashimi platter, the servers would soon want to have the answer — an answer that would keep business coming back rather than leaving without ordering.

I will sadly say I have not had much luck when asking such questions in sushi restaurants. Many a blank stare and shrug have been the response. But that’s not the point. The point is that we should be asking these questions, and we should keep asking them until the questions are as normal as asking about the evening’s drink specials. The fact I’m often shrugged at when asking about the origin of the seafood I’m ordering tells me one thing: not enough people are asking. It’s easy to blame the restaurant if they don’t have the answer, and they should be held accountable for not knowing the answers, but if enough people aren’t asking, the answers won’t come from a busy server with sore feet who has been working for four hours without a break. So when you order from your next sushi restaurant, fishmonger, or local fish and chip shop, ask the servers where the fish came from. If they can’t answer, tell them you will order from them when they can tell you. It’s the only sensible way forward.

Many organizations are doing amazing things when it comes to arming consumers and fisheries with the information they need to make sustainable seafood choices. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is a fantastic certification body holding the seafood market to a higher general standard. Any seafood distributor or restaurant that chooses MSC seafood should get your attention, congratulations, and seafood business. They’re doing the right thing in supporting MSC, and MSC is doing the right thing by the oceans in their amazing work. Sushi companies like Canada’s Bento Sushi and the U.S.A.’s Bamboo Sushi and Sushi Maki are proving, by working with certification bodies like MSC and making sustainable choices, that delicious sushi and sustainable fisheries can go hand in hand.

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council is a certification body that is taking the fight to farmed seafood in the quest for responsible farming. It seeks to “recognize and reward responsible aquaculture through the ASC aquaculture certification programme and seafood label.”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and the SeaChoice program are two extensively researched and very user-friendly guides aimed at consumers choosing and purchasing seafood. SeaChoice has a specific Sustainable Sushi Guide that is very helpful. All this information was vital in putting together the visual information in this article. We thoroughly recommend bookmarking both programs and getting your phone out and checking them whenever you purchase seafood. Much work and research has gone into them, and there’s no excuse not to use them when you shop or eat out.

The above is not meant to be an exhaustive list of organizations doing great things for the oceanic environment. If you think we’ve missed other fantastic resources, please get in touch via Facebook and let us know! We would love to hear about businesses and organizations contributing positively to this cause, and we’d be happy to consider adding resources to this article if they will help customers and businesses become more sustainable.

Based on information from various programs, with the help of our sensational design team, we’ve put together some sushi-specific species information so you can really hold your local restaurant accountable. Some options are simply off-limits altogether; they’ve been pushed too far toward extinction, and we recommend not eating them regardless of where they were harvested. But for the most part, you can be assured your sushi roll came from a sustainable place if it meets the listed location and harvesting methods.

Don’t forget that vegetarian or non-seafood sushi is a readily available choice. The main reason we haven’t gone too deep into that territory here is that even vegetables can have sustainability issues. Farmed meat too, obviously. So before we recommend these alternatives outright, you’ll need to do some research in this regard, too. Being a conscious consumer isn’t easy; we never claimed it was! In some cases, your questions and attitude may earn ire and eyerolls, but don’t let it get to you. You’re doing it so we can continue to enjoy sushi and other forms of seafood for generations to come, and that makes a couple of uncomfortable conversations and interactions worthwhile. One day, people may thank you for it. There may come a time when these questions are as common as, “Can I have extra wasabi with that?” I’m looking forward to that day!

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