A Guide to Sustainable Sushi

Ah, sushi. A traditional Asian fare, the nori-wrapped rice and seafood delicacy is now a virtual dining staple for many Americans across the country—from chick metropolitan cities, to quiet coastal towns, to Midwest suburbs. Yes, Virginia … there is a Santa Claus and, as it turns out, there is wicked good sushi in the landlocked states too.

Sushi’s exotic appeal had me at hello


Believe it or not, being a West Coast girl the first time I had sushi wasn’t in Seattle or Portland or Los Angeles, or anywhere in between. No, the first time I tried sushi was at a well-known restaurant in Denver—not the Midwest where I live now, but still landlocked. I can’t remember exactly what we had, but I loved it and was instantly drawn in by the composition, the flavors and the mindset that I was eating something exotic. Over the next few years, I quickly learned where the good sushi houses were and became a frequent flyer of the California roll, anything with eel and anything with salmon roe.

The California roll was invented in the 70s at the Los Angeles restaurant, Tokyo Kaikan

Nowadays, ordering sushi isn’t as easy as it once was. Consumers now have the opportunity and the responsibility to be informed about good choices and bad choices. But, choosing sushi that’s guaranteed to be a sustainable product is only as easy as the trust you have in the purveyor. Meaning it’s up to you to ask the questions! Read that again—yes, YOU have to ask the questions.

Ryan Bigelow, Program Engagement Manager with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program gives the following tips for consumers when ordering sushi, or any seafood for that matter:

3 tips everyone for ordering sushi or any seafood

  1. Ask if they serve sustainable seafood to help create awareness of your (the consumer’s) concern
  2. Buy seafood that’s recommend as a Best Choice or Good Alternative—download the Seafood Watch app to help when you’re out and about.
  3. Choose sushi from retailers or restaurants that follow Seafood Watch guidelines. It’s usually on the menu and if you don’t see it, at least see if they have a publicly posted commitment to serving sustainable seafood.

2 to avoid and 1 to order
Never order bluefin tuna, known as hon maguro or toro on sushi menus; and avoid eel, called unagi. But if you see saba—mackerel—order at your hearts content—not only is it good for you, but it’s almost universally caught with sustainable methods.

And to help you out a little bit more, here are a few of the common species seen in sushi—both their English name and Japanese name. I hope you’ll take the time to read and educate yourself on what sushi is sustainable, what isn’t, and order appropriately.  Coming up next week on the blog … a guide to purchasing and cooking shellfish

ABALONE : AWABI  A lot of people think abalone is a fish, it’s not—it’s a mollusk. They’re really a sea-going snail with a large, mother-of-pearl lined shell. And they’re good to eat! Sustainably farm-raised throughout the world, abalone can be eaten cooked or raw. But, stay clear of awabi from China and Japan.

ALBACORE : TOMBO : BINCHO There are some good choices, but there are some very bad ones too. Unless your server can confirm that it was NOT caught with drifting longlines, do not order.

AMBERJACK : HAMACHI There are some good choices, but there are growing environmental concerns with this fish, so order cautiously. Always say no to amberjack sourced from Japan.

BLUEFIN TUNA : HON MAGURO : KUROMAGURO  Years of overfishing and poorly regulated fishing with far too much bycatch, have endangered this majestic fish in the wild. And the farmed Southern Bluefin from Australia is being fed in an unstainable manner: more than 12 tons of wild fish is used for feed in the production of one ton of the farmed bluefin. Bottom line: Do not order bluefin in sushi or otherwise. Ever. NOTE: Skipjack tuna, called “katsuo” on sushi menus, is a good choice and can be eaten freely.

Like spicy tuna rolls? Ask what kind of tuna is used to make the rolls

EEL : UNAGI  First time I had eel, I loved it! Truly loved it. Alas, today, unagi is a big no no—it’s endangered due to over-fishing in many parts of the world and nearly impossible to farm-raise. Bottom line: Be it freshwater, common, river or otherwise, do NOT order unagi sushi.

CRAB : KANI  If it’s from Alaska or Canada, then yes, yes, yes. Anywhere else, avoid it.

MACKEREL : SABA  One of the few fishes without any varieties on the avoid list, you can order saba at will—but, do ask where it’s from; hopefully it’s fished in U.S. waters!

OCTOPUS : TAKO  If it comes from the U.S. or Canada, go for it! But, while there are some other regions catching these majestic creatures sustainably, many do not so it’s best to avoid any tako not from the North Atlantic.

OYSTERS : KAKI  Fourteen out of 14 types of oysters on the Seafood Watch list have a green light—so GO! Eat your oysters and enjoy the little aphrodisiacs to your heart’s content. Read more about oysters.

RED SNAPPER : HUACHINANGO If it’s caught in the U.S. or Gulf of Mexico, go for it. If not, avoid it. Read more about red snapper.

SALMON ROE : IKURA Most of the salmon roe used in sushi gets a thumbs up—so for now, enjoy one of my favorites and eat it up!

SALMON : SAKE With so many varieties of salmon, it’s unlikely that your server will know what kind of salmon is in your sushi. Most of the people I’ve talked with say Atlantic salmon is used for sushi—while that’s not always the case, it is something to be aware of and chances are, whatever kind of salmon is served on the dinner menu is usually also being used for sushi. Read more about salmon.

SEA BASS : SUZUKI  Most Suzuki gets a thumbs up. But, you should know seabass caught with bottom trawls has a serious bycatch issue and should be avoided—it’s worth asking your server, even though they may not know the answer.

SEA SCALLOPS : HOTATE  Wild-caught scallops are a good choice from most everywhere—just be sure to avoid Peruvian scallops.

SHRIMP : EBI  Like salmon, this is a tough one because there are some great choices from the U.S. and Canada—both farmed and freshwater—but there are some imported shrimp that should be avoided. So if it’s from North America, yes, yes, yes; if not, then no, no, no.

SQUID : IKA The majority of squid served in the U.S. is imported and of the 14 types listed by the Seafood Watch, half are on the avoid list and only one, the Japanese Flying Squid, is a best choice—but it’s nearly impossible to find in the U.S. market. Bottom line: Order your calamari or ika sushi cautiously and do NOT purchase if it’s from Argentina, China, India or Thailand.

Want more from The Midwest Mermaid? Be sure to follow along here, and on Instagram for all the latest in seafood news and chews | @shaunanosler

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DISCLAIMER: I’m a writer and an editor. And I try my best to make sure every post is articulate and free from errors. However, being that I edit my own work—and it’s next to impossible to properly edit your own work—I admit, occasionally there may be an error or two I miss. But doing so doesn’t make me an idiot so don’t be mean. Just smile, pat yourself on the back for finding an error and be glad you’re not the only one who makes mistakes sometimes … yes, even mermaids slip up every now and then. xoxox