SUSTAINABLE SUSHI: THERE'S A CATCH

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How green is your sushi? Natasha Loder takes a marine biologist to lunch at Nobu to find out ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2009

At Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London, the menu boasts that the sea scallops come from Skye. At Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, the turbot is line-caught. At the Japanese chain Nobu, the menu is unadorned with such details. Its minimalist wording offers no sops to those who prefer their fish sustainably sourced. So I invited a professor of marine biology to lunch at Nobu in Berkeley Street. His instructions were simple: to help me choose the most sustainable fish on the menu. 

Callum Roberts is young, charming and seems too much fun to be a professor. His love of all things marine extends from the bright, warm coral seas of Saudi Arabia to the bitingly cold decks of a North Sea trawler. With his jumper, jeans and rucksack, he looks as if he is about to go for a hike.

An energetic black-clad waitress brings our menus and we get to work. Nobu’s signature dish is sweet black cod marinated in miso. It should be a safe bet, as Dr Roberts believes it comes from a fishery independently certified as sustainable. But he is still worried: the fishery has “quite a high bycatch of several other species of rockfish that are highly depleted”. Although Nobu has done its best to find responsibly sourced black cod, the certifying process ignores the fact that the fishery damages other species. “Not the best choice, but not the worst either,” Roberts concludes.

The next surprise is that the eel sushi is controversial. The baby eels used by farmers come from a wild population that has shown a 99% decline in numbers returning from its breeding grounds (for reasons unknown). Taking more babies from this struggling population, then, isn’t such a good idea.

As we look through the menu, Roberts talks about the restaurant industry more broadly and the difficulties of sourcing fish. Half of the world’s fish is a wild product, caught in the four corners of the planet and traded through large seafood markets where precise details of a fish’s origin can easily evaporate. Last year, two science graduates used a genetic analysis to check 60 samples of New York seafood and found that a quarter of the samples were mislabelled. Seven of nine items sold as red snapper were incorrectly identified: they turned out to be anything from Atlantic cod to the endangered Acadian redfish. A large proportion of the world’s catch is caught illegally and falsely labelled in order to conceal its origins.

Although we don’t expect this to be a problem at Nobu, it will be an issue for many small restaurants, pubs and fish-and-chip shops. The European Commission recently adopted a proposal to make traceability throughout the market chain the norm for all fish entering the EU market. It’s a major step forward, but consumers want more: they want sustainability.

A growing movement of American chefs has been promoting sustainably sourced fish for years. In 2008 chefs in Britain including Raymond Blanc and Heston Blumenthal backed a campaign to ask the restaurant industry to serve only sustainable seafood, and to drop fish such as tuna and swordfish.

The Marine Stewardship Council, the organisation that certifies fisheries as well-managed, has tried to make it easier for the trade to use its logo on menus. One that qualifies is Moshi Moshi, another Japanese restaurant in London, where the staff keep records of what they buy and sell and store the certified fish separately. Only then can you see that every link in the chain, from ocean to plate, has the same standards.

Back at Nobu, in the absence of an MSC logo on the menu, Roberts was asking the waitress about the seafood. She knew little about the provenance of the fish, so he sent her to the kitchen for answers. Answers which proved surprisingly elusive. Information about the fish’s history is often limited, in one case it is non-existent, and in another it turns out to be wrong.

The salmon was farmed in Scotland. Nobu didn’t know if it was an organic farm; nor did the kitchen know anything about the sea bass. We avoided it just in case. One local fishery accidentally kills a lot of porpoises and dolphins. As for the scallops, they were from New England, but nobody knew how they had been caught. It’s a vital question as many scallops are dredged from the sea, which strips life off the bottom of the ocean and damages habitats. Some scallops are collected by divers, which is usually better.

We chose sushi and starters comprising salmon, lobster, mackerel, smelt eggs, squid and yellowtail tuna. We also ordered the scallops. We had been told they were from New England, and Roberts reasoned that while these were mostly dredged, there are areas set aside from dredging in Georges Bank.

Finally, there was the fish we didn’t need to ask about: the bluefin tuna. It is so overfished that many leading  chefs won’t serve it. Earlier this year the principality of Monaco eliminated this species from sale. On the bottom of our menu was a note: “Bluefin tuna is an environmentally threatened species—please ask your server for an alternative.”  Better than nothing.

Overall, it was difficult to get enough information to make confident choices. I’d also brought two good fish and sushi guides downloaded from the internet, but without sourcing information from the restaurant they were next to useless. We were left hungry for details and curious as to why Nobu’s staff were not eager to advertise the origins of their fish.

Had it just been a bad day? In the interests of fairness, we decided to ask again. This time, I’d say that I was a journalist trying to find out more about eating sustainable fish at Nobu and explain that I had struggled to find the answers to my question at Berkeley Street. A Nobu spokesperson said that one of the reasons the kitchen was unable to give us more information was that many of the sourcing decisions were  taken by the executive chef for the entire Nobu group. He felt that some of our questions, for example about how the scallops were caught, were quite “technical”; the sous chef would not know the answer.

Mark Edwards, the executive chef for Nobu Europe, responded, saying the salmon was from Loch Duart, “from sea lochs that were fallowed”. Interesting, we replied, this seems to be from the good end of the market. Could you tell us more about its sustainability? Edwards suggested we look the supplier up on the internet. We did. Loch Duart salmon makes efforts to minimise the impact of the farming by allowing the marine environment to recover (by fallowing) after the salmon have been harvested. It’s a good choice: Nobu should tell their customers about it.

Then we were told that the scallops had not come from New England after all. They came from Celtic Seafoods in Britain and had been collected by divers. Does that mean they came from a British supplier or were they actually collected in Britain? Edwards replied that they came from Scotland and we should contact the supplier for more. Finally, the seabass was farmed. Any chance of finding out how? By this time Edwards was in Cape Town, opening another new Nobu, and heading for Moscow to open yet another. “I’m afraid we are not going to be able to get any more information,” came the response.

This doesn’t seem good enough at one of the world’s leading fish restaurants. Many less prestigious establishments are far more forthcoming. Consumers worry about damaging biodiversity and whether there will be enough fish left for our children to enjoy the same pleasures as we do. Nobu’s diners are paying a lot to be told to find answers on the internet. Shouldn’t the information be as good as the food?
 

Download guides on sustainable sushi here and here.

 

Picture Credit: Clifford Harper

(Natasha Loder writes about science for The Economist.)