How to Make Sure Your Sushi Is Sustainable

You don't have to stop eating seafood to save our oceans; you just need to order wisely.
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Oceans won't have fish by 2048. Two-thirds of the world's seafood is overfished or depleted. Coral reefs are dying and losing their ability to recover from damage caused by global warming and destructive fishing.

As news headlines repeatedly tell us, human actions have caused vast oceanic destruction—a worrisome issue given that over 70 percent of the Earth's surface is ocean. Scientists have urged humans to change their behavior if they want our oceans (and the diverse life they support) to remain vibrant. 

That doesn't mean you can never again enjoy a nice sushi dinner or have a backyard fish fry; it just means you need to select your seafood with sustainability in mind.

Kristofor Lofgren, founder of sustainability-focused Bamboo Sushi, which was the first restaurant in the world to be certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, knows it can be overwhelming to select products that are good for the planet. Having spent over a decade creating an environmentally friendly sushi restaurant, he's intimately familiar with the myriad components affecting sustainability in seafood.

The most important thing customers can do to help the cause, Lofgren says, is understand exactly how fish products got to their plate. "The people serving you seafood should know where it was caught, what catch methods were used, and where it was processed," Lofgren says. "You need to see if [staff] really know and care about their product."

Here are four key things to consider the next time you place your next sushi order.

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1. How the fish was caught

Certain catch methods are best avoided, as they result in bycatch (species other than the target one being caught, which contributes to overfishing) and environment destruction. 

In dredging, for example, a large cage is dragged along the bottom of oceans to catch fish. This can destroy sea floor environments, including vital coral reefs, and unintentionally injure or kill sea life such as turtles. Because the cages are wide open, they also result in bycatch, depleting other species. This method, then, is rarely an environmentally friendly option.

Other methods are unsustainable depending on how they are used and the species they are used on. Long line fishing and large nets can both result in bycatch if done carelessly. In long line fishing, multiple baited hooks hang from a single long line. If those hooks are small enough and the long line is left unattended for several weeks, bycatch (including sea turtles) can latch onto the hooks and ultimately die. However, if hooks are designed for a specific species and the line only hangs for a single day, bycatch can be minimized. Similarly, large nets dragged through the ocean can pick up any number of fish species, but if fishers use smaller nets and carefully target the species they wish to catch, they can sustainably use net methods. The main goal is to keep the catch size small by selecting the right method for a particular species and doing as much as possible to only catch that species. 

Takeaway

Before you order seafood, ask the staff how it was caught so you can avoid fish caught using unsustainable methods. If the staff don't know, the safest bet is to avoid it. 

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2. Where the fish came from 

Where your fish was caught or farmed has serious ramifications for the environment. For instance, farm-raised shrimp from outside the U.S.—which is where most shrimp farm-raising happens—should be avoided. Mangrove forests are cut down to build many of those farms, which destroys habitats, reduces biodiversity, and eliminates vital carbon-reducing trees. What's more, the shrimp have poor sanitation and diets. "Fish swim around in their own excrement," Lofgren says, resulting in a low-quality product. In 2015, Consumer Reports tested 342 packages of frozen ship, most of which came from abroad, and found that over 60 percent tested positive for bacteria. That same study revealed several imported fish were contaminated from antibiotic residues, which has been linked to cancer. 

Foreign shrimp farms are a problem from an ethical standpoint, too. An AP investigation from 2015 to 2016 revealed much of the foreign shrimp farming industry is built on the backs of slaves who are forced into the business and then face poor working conditions. They make little money and are exposed to toxins that cause long-term health problems, and they're often prohibited from leaving or changing jobs. 

There are several other examples of unsustainable fish from certain regions. (British-Columbia farm-raised Alaskan salmon, for instance, produces harmful fish waste that infects wild Alaskan salmon, thereby reducing the wild salmon population as a whole.) 

But aquaculture isn't all bad, Lofgren says. There are plenty of sustainable options, such as Bamboo Sushi's trout from McFarland Springs. They're fed a fully vegetarian diet free of fish feed, hormones, or antibiotics. All of the power needed to run the operation is generated by the stream running through the springs, too, and runoff actually benefits the land. 

Takeaway

Know your fish's origin, and put in a few minutes of research to make sure it's sustainable and ethical. 

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3. Where the fish was processed

Regardless of whether it's caught in the U.S., most fish is processed in foreign countries because it's cheaper. This has several environmental consequences.

Perhaps most obviously, the back-and-forth transporting to foreign processing facilities and domestic retailers creates a large carbon footprint. Additionally, the separation of suppliers and fishers from processors contributes to widespread fish mislabeling. An Oceana study conducted from 2010 to 2012 found seafood is mislabeled anywhere from 26 to 87 percent of the time. Snapper and tuna were the most frequently mislabeled fish. Of the 120 samples of red snapper included in the study, only seven were correctly labeled.

Whether this mislabeling occurs because of miscommunication or fraudulent practices aimed at selling a fish for more than it's worth, it prevents the consumers from knowing what they're eating. "If consumers don't know what they're eating, they have no way of knowing whether it's a sustainable option," Lofgren says. 

Takeaway

Ask where your seafood was processed and how the company knows the species actually is what it's labeled as. If the providers are committed to selling a quality product, they should be able to tell you. 

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4. Where the fish ranks on Seafood Watch

One of the easiest ways to verify whether your seafood is sustainable is to look it up on Seafood Watch. The organization has guides for each state that identify which fish are okay to consume, which to be wary of, and which to avoid entirely. Bluefin tuna, for instance, is always in the "avoid" category, as it's been overfished to the point of being endangered. The app also allows you to search for nearby places that serve ocean-friendly products.

Takeaway

If you're short on time or just unsure of what to look for, the Seafood Watch app is a great way to get reliable information on any type of seafood. 

Although it might seem like a lot to consider before buying seafood, Lofgren says, it goes a long way—and it doesn't take much effort. "We've never had more knowledge at our fingertips," Lofgren says. "You can spend 5 to 10 minutes learning about sustainability in seafood or researching your order, and you can make a big impact just by voting with your dollar."  

That impact isn't just about saving the ocean. "A healthy ocean is a healthy planet," Lofgren says. "So it's not just about eating. It's about the entire planet."