Sustainable Sushi Choices and Practices

Fresh, cool fish, subtly seasoned rice and the tingle of wasabi—sushi the essence of the ocean in one bite.  Nothing we eat reminds us more of surfing!

The sushi that we eat today has its origins in fish preservation techniques that are hundreds of years old. Then, fish filled our oceans. Today, there are serious concerns about the number of fish left in the sea and it’s time to create new traditions.

If you have a healthy appetite for fish and sushi,  this appetite can come at a cost. Overfishing has put the future of many species at risk. Some fishing techniques, like dredging, damages the ocean floor habitat. Farming fish can cause massive pollution. Some retailers and restaurants are moving toward more sustainable sourcing practices, but you as the consumer can encourage them by ordering responsibly.

It’s hard enough trying to remember which fish species are on the brink of collapse, and visiting a sushi restaurant can get confusing.

Many fish species are OK if caught on the Atlantic coast, but not if from Asia. Some are OK if wild-caught, but not if farmed. Some are great from South America, but – well, you get the point. Even more frustrating, often servers can’t (or won’t) answer your questions about the source of the fish.

With the help of the  Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide (also available as a smart phone app or in a wallet-sized card) we offer some of the more popular sushi’s best sustainable choices.

Sablefish or Gindara aka butterfish (yummy!) or black cod) from Alaska and British Columbia. There the populations are managed well, and fishing techniques avoid a lot of bycatch.

West Coast fisheries are less sustainable, with more bycatch and damaging bottom trawl, but are still ok to eat.

Iwana aka Arctic Char. Most arctic char sold in the United States is farmed in closed systems, with little risk of pollution.

Iwashi aka Sardines. After a scare in the 1940’s when the population dipped to almost non-existent, sardines have charged to a comeback and are now plentiful. Enjoying them over rice as sashimi sounds a lot tastier than packed in a can.

Kaki aka Oysters are well suited to aquaculture, so they can be grown with little risk of pollution. Go for the farmed if you can, but if you find yourself tempted by the wild caught Blue Points, don’t beat yourself up too much. They’re still a “good alternative,” according to Seafood Watch.

After the oil spill, there’s been increasing concern about eating gulf coast oysters: Eco Etiquette columnist Jennifer Grayson weighs in on the debate.

Masago aka Capelin or Smelt Roe.  If you’re looking for some bright toppings for your sushi rolls, turn to the capelin roe. Icelandic fisheries are hailed for their forward-thinking population management and habitat-safe catching techniques.

Canada doesn’t get the gold star due to its use of trap nets and unclear management, but it is still a “good alternative.” Iceland wins for best practices.

Giant Clam aka Margai,  minimal impacts on habitat, highly effective management, and minimal bycatch, you’ll want to taste this popular sushi item. Go for ones from Washington and British Columbia, which merit “Best Choice.” The rest make only a passing grade.

Muurugai aka Mussels. Give yourself a pat on the back, America, you import mussels from developed nations with stringent environmental regulations. Mussel farming in the US is also environmentally friendly.

Sawara aka Spanish Mackerel There are a couple varieties of this fish, but both are a great choice. It matures quickly and breeds well, so it springs back quickly from fishing pressure. U.S. Spanish mackerel fishers are well managed.

There is a catch: the Environmental Defense Fund has issued a consumption advisory for it, due to elevated levels of mercury. You’ll want to avoid it if you are pregnant or nursing.

Suzuki, A.K.A Striped Bass. Nope, we’re not telling you to order a motorbike. Farmed not wild-caught Suzuki, the name for striped bass, is the healthy  choice.

See note below for  important updates from a viewer, mahalo Dean!

Even though wild-caught bass has rebounded to record levels after a scare in the 1980’s, there is a health advisory issued for it due to mercury, so take care if you are pregnant or nursing. That, and a minimal threat of pollution, make farmed your best choice.

Re: Suzuki, a.k.a. striped bass…….
Wild caught bass are subject to being infected by Mycobacteriosis, a wasting and potentially fatal disease that can be transferred to humans through raw or undercooked flesh from an infected fish.  According to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), 80% or more of the striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay are infected with “myco” and this is where the vast majority of wild striped bass are reared and emanate from. It is impossible to visually determine the presence of the disease unless spleen tissue samples are examined under a microscope. Therefore it is suggested that only farm raised Suzuki or striped bass be consumed…….especially when considering all the health warnings that have been issued by all but one east coast state advising that children and women that are pregnant or might become pregnant-NEVER eat wild striped bass!

Seafood Watch Pocket Guide


What You Can Do

Learn more about sustainable seafood and get tips for your next visit to the sushi bar.

Learn more

Channel Catfish: A Best Choice

Tuna in Trouble

©Gavin Newman/Greenpeace

Bluefin tuna is one of the most popular fish on the menu at most sushi bars, but are we loving bluefin to death?

Learn more

Thanks to  Monterey Bay Aquarium and Alden Wicker from the Huffington Post for most of this article!

Explore more of the Top Sustainable Choices:

Iron Chef America Says No More to Bluefin Tuna

Bluefin tuna gets banned from the television menu

(Photo © Save Our Seas/Tom Campbell/

Issues & What You Can Do

Fishing practices worldwide are damaging our oceans—depleting fish populations, destroying habitats and polluting the water. Informed consumers can help turn the tide.

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