A lot of people I know seek out meat, eggs, and dairy from pasture-raised animals and vegetables grown without chemicals, but they do not question where their seafood comes from unless they’re worried about mercury.

The concept of sustainable seafood is a revolutionary idea that I hope catches on the way dolphin-safe tuna fish has. In mid-October in Manhattan, a group of environmental NGOs joined forces to promote the idea of sustainable sushi.

I arrived at the French Culinary Institute for the New York Sustainable Sushi Tasting having no idea what I was in for. The Blue Ocean Institute, Environmental Defense Fund, and Monterey Bay Aquarium hosted the event as a way to share their new sustainable-sushi guides while having people sample the goods.

The charming Trevor Corson, author of The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice and Casson Trenor, author of the soon-to-be released Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving Our Oceans One Bite at a Time and sustainability director of Tataki Restaurant in San Francisco, were involved in the project and were on hand to casually talk about the subject. Japanese food expert and author Hiroko Shimbo and Tataki chef/owner Kin Wai Lui prepared the sushi for our sampling.

What makes sushi sustainable? The Blue Ocean Institute describes fish as sustainable if a “species is relatively abundant, and fishing/farming methods cause little damage to habitat and other wildlife.”

Kate McLaughlin from the Blue Ocean Institute clarified that if population levels are stable and the way the fish is caught or farmed doesn’t harm the environment or other species, and then she considers it an ocean friendly choice. Simply put, sustainable sushi is ocean friendly. Many of the fish we commonly eat are not ocean friendly. According to the Environmental Defense Fund:

  • Over 70 percent of world fish stocks are fully exploited or over fished and catches are declining.
  • More than 14 billion pounds of fish each year are wasted as unwanted “by-catch.”
  • Untreated wastewater from many aquaculture operations pollutes oceans and wetlands.

But how can sushi be made sustainable? That is a complicated question with no easy answers. Some possible approaches:

  • Sustainable sushi advocates say fisheries should be limited by “catch shares.” In other words, the amount of fish of a given species that can be safely taken from the ocean is determined. Then that amount is divided into shares that are divvied out to fisheries. Fisheries would be allowed to trade among themselves, but the total amount of fish taken from the ocean would not exceed the recommended amount.
  • Organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund are working to develop organic standards for farmed fish.

But the event didn’t just involve pondering the critical question of fishery survival. The extensive menu included amaebi (sweet shrimp) nigiri style (my favorite), Uni (sea urchin roe) nigiri gunkan style, and suzuki (striped bass) nigiri style. Hiroko asked me to use my hands, as opposed to chopsticks because she said sushi is intended to be eaten with your hands. She explained that it should be loosely packed so that the rice falls apart in your mouth softly.

Frankly, I have never seen sushi presented so beautifully or elaborately as Tataki’s sustainable sushi deluxe sashimi plate. The yellow fin tuna was a vivid red and tasted divine while the albacore had a deliciously complex flavor that changed in my mouth. The succulent sweet shrimp was almost buttery. I learned from Trevor that not all sushi should be dipped in soy sauce. The finale was Tataki’s Extinguisher Roll and Tataki’s Golden State Roll (described as a gift from California to New York). I simply can’t do these rolls justice in writing about them. Let me just say there were flakes of gold on top and utter decadence and inspiring flavors.

Where can you get sustainable sushi? Tataki in San Francisco is an obvious option. But unless you plan to eat sushi only there, you have to make wise and responsible choices yourself. Luckily, the Blue Ocean Institute, Environmental Defense Fund, and Monterey Bay Aquarium are working hard to make that easy. All three groups have released pocket guides to sustainable sushi. You can find them here, here, and here. The three guides differ in style, but are based on similar data; all can be accessed through mobile devices.

The user-friendly guides include both the English and Japanese names for the fish. They list eco-friendly fish choices and also offer alternatives to popular yet over-fished choices. If you don’t want to carry a guide around, you can use the Blue Ocean Institute’s text messaging service and type “FISH” and the species name to 30644 and you’ll get a message regarding its sustainability right back.

As consumers, we have a choice. We can choose sustainable seafood wherever we go out to eat and make a difference in ocean life. For example, farmed bay scallops, Pacific halibut and tilapia are good selections, while Bluefin tuna belly, octopus, and red snapper are not.

Tim Fitzgerald from the Environmental Defense Fund stated that you don’t have to sacrifice taste for sustainability, and I wholeheartedly agree. You can still eat incredibly delicious sushi and maintain a clear conscience. Consumers have the power to encourage restaurants to serve sustainable sushi and provide alternates for our standard sushi fare. It’s up to you.