Guides help consumers pick 'sustainable sushi'

by Karen Matthews

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Mackerel is in but octopus is out. And bluefin tuna, known as the king of sushi for its fatty belly meat, is a definite no-no.

These tips and others on ocean-friendly sushi are now available in pocket guides being published this month by three conservation groups. The sustainability guides are the first specifically for sushi, listing fish by their Japanese and English names.

“The sushi industry as a whole is probably pretty far behind the curve,” said Trevor Corson, the author of “The Story of Sushi” and a contributor to one of the guides, produced by the Blue Ocean Institute.

Corson said fish houses that don’t serve sushi are more likely to pay attention to whether their seafood is caught by sustainable methods. In one of the guides, diners at sushi eateries are urged to quiz chefs on where the fish came from and if it was caught or farmed.

“You often see the information about the fish right on the menu,” Corson said about traditional seafood joints. “You don’t get that at sushi restaurants.”

The three guides, published by the East Norwich, N.Y.-based Blue Ocean Institute, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Environmental Defense Fund, debuted this week at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan and appear on Oct. 22 at San Francisco’s Tataki, billed as the only “sustainable sushi” eatery in the U.S.

In addition, the aquarium is sponsoring a weeklong “virtual sushi party” starting Oct. 22. Participants will be asked to take a pocket guide with them while ordering sushi, then log onto Facebook to compare notes.

The groups already publish guides to seafood whose supplies are dwindling because of overfishing and other environmental threats. So why a separate guide for sushi?

Corson said some consumers “leave their sustainability conscience at the door when they walk into a sushi restaurant.”

And he said sushi offerings may be identified only by their Japanese names, such as “toro” (tuna belly) or “tako” (octopus). The sushi pocket guides identify the fish in both English and Japanese.

The Environmental Defense Fund’s guide is slightly more focused than the other two on the health of the consumer as well as the health of the oceans, with some items — wild Alaskan salmon, farmed oysters — identified as being “high in heart-healthy omega-3s and low in contaminants.”

Bluefin makes the worst choices list of the defense fund’s “Sushi Selector” because overfishing has sent the species’ population plummeting by 90 percent in 30 years.

Other worst choices, according to the defense fund: monkfish (“ankoh”), red snapper (“tai”) and freshwater eel (“unagi”). Best choices include U.S. farmed abalone (“awabi”), albacore tuna from the U.S. or Canada (“shiro maguro”) and farmed arctic char (“iwana”).

In New York, Jo-Ann Makovitzky, who owns the high-end Japanese restaurant 15 East with her husband, chef Marco Moreira, said she doesn’t serve endangered Chilean sea bass but does serve bluefin tuna.

“My responsibility as a restaurateur is to bring a safe, healthy, desired product to the guests,” Makovitzky said. “Me saying I’m not going to sell tuna anymore, what is that going to do? Other people are just going to end up buying it and our customers are not going to have it.”