Look, we're all guilty of it.
We know that the ocean is full of trash and trawl nets, that many of our favorite foods are destructive to the planet, that we should eat fewer cheeseburgers and more flax meal or whatever. But realistically, when it's 1:07 PM on a Tuesday and you're sitting at your office desk hungry as hell, there are other needs and desires that take precedence. Like, for instance, one's casual craving for a two-roll lunch combo from the cheap sushi spot down the block. "Yeah, yeah," you say. "I love the environment. Save the Earth. Now pass the soy sauce."
We know that overfishing is a problem, and that much of the seafood we consume is farmed or caught using unsustainable practices. But just how bad is it to eat crappy California rolls a couple of times a week?
We asked two experts on sustainable seafood just how self-loathing we should feel as we work our way through a bento box. Timothy Fitzgerald is the Director of Impact at the Environmental Defense Fund, specializing in the organization's Oceans Program, renewing fisheries, chemical safety, and sustainable seafood. Brandon Hill is the Director of Infrastructure and Supply Chain at Portland-based chain Bamboo Sushi, the first certified sustainable sushi restaurant in the world, and has been a sushi chef for over ten years. Both work closely with the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program.
And sorry—they don't have great news about your shrimp tempura. But they do have some tips for what you should order instead.
Brandon Hill: Everyone in America wants red-meat tuna. There's bluefin, bigeye, and yellowfin. Bluefin is something that we stay far, far away from. Yellowfin—some have healthy populations, some have poor populations, but even the healthy ones are caught in ways that are detrimental. If you're going to eat tuna, there are a couple of different spots, such as in Hawaii, or the Philippines, where there are specific areas with specific catch methods that are sustainable. But the bulk of red meat tuna that you find out there is long-line, caught with giant fishing lines that are up to 50 miles long that they put a bunch of hooks on and leave out for up to 3 days. Anything that bites it is going to get stuck there.
Timothy Fitzgerald: Within red tuna, there are lots of sustainable sources and lots of unsustainable sources. In a sushi context, very few restaurants voluntarily label where their fish is from, and they're not required to. This is in contrast to supermarkets, which are required to label whether it's farmed or wild, and what country it's from. It's more likely that the tuna at sushi restaurants is unsustainable. If this is something you're getting from your corner deli or the conveyer belt sushi place, or places where the attraction is low-price, they're probably not doing a lot of due diligence. Some countries may allow fisheries to fin sharks if they catch them by accident on tuna longlines. There are pockets of light around the country, but I'd say that's only about 1 percent of all sushi restaurants are serving sustainably fished tuna.
Hill: Most of the yellowtail eaten in the US is farm-raised, a lot of it in Japan and Australia in ways that are very environmentally unfriendly. A lot of it is ranched fish—they catch juveniles, raise them to maturity, then sell them. But hamachi is a jackfish, and there are a lot of siblings and cousins of hamachi in the jackfish family. Amberjack, kampachi, and kingfish are very prevalent and are better choices.
Fitzgerald: You don't see a lot of yellowtail outside of sushi. But a lot of it, if not most of it, is farmed at this point. They use a lot of fish in the feed, they use pens that have pollution and other issues. Unless they happen to tell you that the yellowtail is from that really cool farm in Hawaii that everybody talks about, I wouldn't have a ton of confidence that it's sustainable.
Hill: Sustainable salmon is actually the easiest thing to chase down. There are some farms out there doing a great job with sustainability and cleanliness. There's a guy in Washington raising them on land, in closed-circulation tanks. If you can't find sustainable salmon out there, you're not trying at all. If you're going to a place that isn't bottom-of-the-barrel cheap, they might be serving wild Alaskan salmon or farm-raised. Or you can get wild Sockeye really easily.
Fitzgerald: If it's just generic salmon, then I avoid it. Wild Alaskan salmon is a good choice. I would probably just defer to Seafood Watch ratings for farmed salmon. I do know that there are some farms in certain countries that aren't just a blanket "avoid," and that more companies are learning to mitigate the multitude of risk factors that are inherent to salmon farming. I wouldn't say it's a total no-go as a category, but you would need additional information.
Hill: Eels are escape artists. Fishermen basically drag riverbeds to be able to catch them. Freshwater eel, a.k.a. unagi, is very unsustainable and they won't breed in captivity. If you're going to a mid-range restaurant, order with trepidation. In Japan, they eat anago, sea eel, but it varies from restaurant to restaurant. Anago is leaner and has more flavor, character, instead of just sweet, teriyaki, BBQ-y flavor. Most sushi restaurants that are worth their salt carry both, because they're very different creatures.
Fitzgerald: You'll find a mix of wild-caught product and, even though they call it farmed, ranched—baby eels that they've caught in the wild and then raised in pens. Either way, they're still depleting wild stocks, and we know that eel populations are threatened around the world. They don't grow super fast, and they get caught in large volumes when they're spawning or migrating, so you can wipe out a big chunk of them relatively easily.
Hill: In our California rolls, we use a mixture of wild-capture crab and a bit of imitation crab. It's pollock caught up in Alaska that's super sustainable; super-abundant, and they breed at a really young age. Finding wild crab is also easy. There is bad imitation crab out there and good imitation crab, so it's just about finding the right stuff. Straight crab wasn't sweet enough for guests at first, because they're so used to imitation crab.
Fitzgerald: Pollock is very abundant, and it's managed very strictly—last year, it was the world's biggest fishery. It's a very industrial, efficient fishery. There are surprisingly low amounts of bycatch. They have very strict quotas. They have a vested interest in fishing sustainably because they have a secure quota. But if you get a crab meat roll—as opposed to "krab"—it's probably not from the US. You're probably looking at something from the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, China, somewhere like that, and that's where it starts to get very dicey. In most of those places, they're not fishing at a sustainable level, and the crabs are getting smaller and smaller, and they have lots of bycatch. Plus you're more likely to have those social issues of forced labor and human rights abuses, those kinds of things.
Hill: There's no question that they're gross and disgusting. That's why a lot of shrimp kind of taste like mud. Shrimp's a real hard one—we change our shrimp sources a couple of times a year. The shrimp in Southeast Asia is really bad for the environment, and for you—with antibiotics, wastewater, etc. We use a farm-raised product from Ecuador. There are a number of places realizing that there is a market for a quality shrimp product. Spot prawns are wild, they come from the sea, and they're not environmentally detrimental. They're from British Columbia, have minimal environmental impact, and are raw, creamy, and sweet.
Fitzgerald: Avoid the tuna/salmon/shrimp trio altogether. An exception that you'll find on a lot of menus—I wouldn't say all menus—in the shrimp category is sweet shrimp, which is usually from a very sustainable trap fishery on the West Coast for spot prawns and related types of shrimp. It's a more expensive item than your regular butterflied shrimp tail, but it tastes better. Most shrimp in the US, and most of it is imported from Southeast Asia. and many of those types lack the types of environmental regulations that would make people feel better. One of the biggest problems from farmed shrimp in that part of the world is the chemical use. You'll find so much residue—and this is in USDA reports—that sometimes shipments are turned away because they have high levels of fungicides and antibiotics.
Hill: There are great scallops out there. All bivalves are farm-raised extremely well. Oysters, mussels, clams—they're filter feeders, so any time you put a bivalve farm somewhere, it actually makes the water cleaner. Farm-raised scallops are awesome. You can get wild scallops off the East Coast; they use satellites to find them and then dredge them and collect them. It doesn't destroy the ecosystem around it, because is done very carefully using satellite mapping.
Fitzgerald: With bivalves—clams, oysters, mussels, scallops—you're much more likely to end up with a sustainable choice. At least in the US, most of the scallops in sushi come from the East Coast. They don't really have scallop fisheries on the West Coast, but one fishery is managed pretty well and population levels are pretty strong for the time being—they're trying not to screw up.
Hill: Uni's one of my favorites. There are certain parts of the globe where uni is very abundant, and others where uni is not doing well. Santa Barbara uni is considered some of the best. It does well and they keep a close eye on it. Sea urchins on the East Coast are pretty much all overfished and are red-listed, but you can have fishermen/divers go out and then sell them to restaurants. Only order uni during warm-water months, when it's in the best part of the season, and be very selective about where you purchase from.
Fitzgerald: Uni is mostly from the US. It's a little bit safer to think of what coast you're on or what part of the country you're in. There's a big fishery in Maine, and a big fishery on the West Coast in British Columbia and Seattle. That's probably the best bet you could hitch.
SO WHAT SHOULD I EAT?
Hill: Albacore tuna is the best one you're going to find that is very environmentally friendly. It's "green" or "super-green" because the fish reproduce at a young age and have healthy populations. The Pacific Northwest is the best albacore area in the country. It's delicious, it's healthy, and it's very abundant.
Smoked salmon is also fairly abundant, comes from well-managed fisheries, and is good for you.
We promote a lot of bivalves—clams, mussels, oysters.
Sardines, silver fish, mackerel, cured and pickled small little fish—they're super, super abundant out in the ocean, and extremely healthy for you. Most people tend to stay away from them because their oil content makes them "fishier," but they're the sleepers that everyone needs to get behind.
Kampachi is leaner than hamachi, and has more flavor and less oil. It's also farm-raised, and very sustainable and clean. Amberjack is also in the same family and is delicious.
Fitzgerald: Albacore is a really great option. And the albacore that you find in sushi restaurants is usually from a very sustainable fishery on the West Coast—they don't usually source albacore from the big longline fish that ends up going into cans.
Mackerel are also often more sustainable than other stuff on the menu.
What we know from Bamboo and San Francisco's Tataki and other sustainable sushi restaurants is that you can eat conscientiously and still eat well. If sushi diners are willing to ask basic questions at the restaurants that they patronize, they may start thinking differently about providing some more information to their diners and sourcing more sustainable options.
Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in October 2016.