Friday, October 24, 2008

Sushi with a conscience

Food for Thought

Express Staff Writer

There's no doubt about it: Sushi—that artistic Japanese cuisine that so beautifully marries sticky rice and raw fish—is on a roll. Its reputation as a delicious, fun and healthy food has brought it from the culinary fringes to the mainstream. It is, in a word, chic.

As a result, nigiri sushi (hand-formed pieces) and maki sushi (rolls) have moved beyond the bustling specialty restaurants and into our supermarkets, fast-food cafeterias and shopping malls. Last year, I enjoyed some of the best sushi I'd eaten in months in—of all places—the crowded café of a giant department store in Geneva, Switzerland.

The popularity is well deserved but—as more and more media sources are reporting—there is a price: The surge in demand for a longtime mainstay of sushi menus across the globe is putting one of the world's most majestic and economically important fish at risk of extinction. That fish is the bluefin tuna, known in Japan as maguro.

The giant bluefin—which can reach weights in excess of 1,300 pounds—is a tiger of the ocean, patrolling mile after mile in search of prey, mainly smaller, schooling fish such as mackerel. Prior to the 1970s, the bluefin in most parts of the world was viewed more as a source of sport than food. But, as the popularity of maguro sushi grew in Japan—and eventually other parts of the world—a staggering shift in the value of the bluefin's crimson flesh prompted the development of a vast, multi-billion-dollar harvest industry.

Today, entire schools of bluefin are expediently netted by giant, modern vessels, flash frozen and shipped to Tokyo, where single fish are sold whole at market for prices that range up to $50,000, sometimes more. Perhaps the heaviest fishing occurs in the Mediterranean Sea, where thousands of giant bluefin migrate each spring to spawn. There, the crews of massive net boats called purse seiners team up with airplane pilots to locate pods of bluefin and set upon them with collapsing nets. Many are subsequently fattened in tuna "ranches," wide-ranging feeding pens in the open sea.

In some circles, however, fishing for bluefin remains an adventure. Off the coast of New England, crews of high-speed lobster boats equipped with a lookout tower and bow extension chase feeding bluefin for hours at a time, waiting for a chance to launch a hand-held harpoon into one of the bigger fish. The industry can be lucrative but regulations and declining fish stocks pose an ever-present challenge.

As a child in southern Maine in the 1970s, I would wait at the landing dock just to get a glimpse of the 700- to 1,000-pound fish that were brought in and loaded into a freezer truck for shipment to Japan. One night, one of the captains offered to cut a 5-pound chunk from the flank of one of his fish. My family accepted, and my appreciation for the grandeur of maguro was born.

It was years later, though, when another captain invited me out to fish, that I came to see the real beauty of the bluefin, as big-eyed fish the size of a refrigerator glided gracefully through the water at 40 miles per hour. Landing one brought shouts of joy, but an air of respect for the fish somehow tempered the celebration.

True maguro is a delicacy, indeed, and it is no surprise that it is the gold-label item in our ever-growing appetite for sushi, and seafood in general. But as world fishing fleets take an estimated 1 million bluefin per year, many scientists are warning that the species is on the brink of collapse. The population in the western Atlantic is believed to have declined by about 90 percent.

Regulations alone might not save the bluefin, when such high demand translates to a veritable brawl for dollars to be made. Fortunately, almost all sushi restaurants—including those in our valley—have so much more to offer. (Some, you might find, use yellowfin tuna for maguro, although that species too is suffering from overfishing.) I, for one, will curb my intake of maguro. It will, after all, leave more space on the platter for succulent salmon, scallops and all of the other sushi delicacies.

Gregory Foley is the online daily news editor for the Idaho Mountain Express. He has worked as a professional writer, reporter and editor since 1997.

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