Could This Be the End of Jiro’s Dreams?

This week, the latest Japanophile documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, made its way to my local theatre. It is the story of world-renowned sushi chef Jiro Ono’s quest for perfection, his relationship with his son and protégé, and the future of the sushi business. I went to the theatre with the expectation of it being a simple documentary with some great looking seafood sprinkled throughout (like so much spicy tuna roll topping), but I was pleased to find much more.

original image source: http://www.robsworld.org/chopsticks.html

After a trip to Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market, the world’s largest and one of its oldest fish markets, there is some commentary on the shifting availability of the various sea creatures that top our most popular sushi rolls. The Japanese often bear the criticism that they are ruthless in their quest for seafood, one glaring example being the Japanese government’s renewed interest in whaling, so I was relieved to hear the way a real sushi master talks about his way of life.

When you think about sushi, you may think about visiting a high-end Japanese restaurant and sampling a few savory morsels of neatly cut fish and seasoned rice, or about your local all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet which also, inexplicably, serves sushi. Or, you may think about the lunch counter in your grocery store or college cafeteria. This is exactly the problem—sushi is available everywhere, and that has caused a lot of trouble.

Where would the world of sushi be without fish? It would barely exist as a culinary form, and our favorite bars would all but disappear. As sushi master Jiro puts it, “Businesses should balance profit with conservation…without fish, we can’t do business.” According to a survey by Japan-Guide.com, there are nearly twenty different sushi rolls ranked as “favorite types.” So, let’s take a look at a few popular rolls and see what the relentless consumption of our favorite sushi fish may be doing.

  • Anago/Unagi (eel)- Eel’s biggest problem is a declining population. As wild sources have begun to shrink, commercial eel farming has come into vogue. Although this might sound like a clever solution to their population woes, it has further hampered wild eels’ ability to reproduce. Most farms start by capturing young eel (rather than breeding from eggs), thereby pulling those prime breeders from their natural mating grounds.
  • Amaebi (raw shrimp)- Shrimp farms are also a culprit among sushi suppliers, but not for the same reason as the eel farms. The most popular places to raise shrimp are mixed water environments, such as salt marshes and mangroves. The more farmland that is created (approximately 1-1.5 million ha), the less that remains as an undisturbed ecosystem.
  • Toro (tuna)- Any good sushi menu will offer many excellent cuts of tuna—lean, medium, fatty—but they all come from the same fish with the same problems. Before the 1970s, tuna was only thought of as a mayonnaise soaked sandwich filler. But with the availability of air-shipping cargo and commercial freezer boats, fresh tuna suddenly became a popular option, and the demand hasn’t died down. Tuna has become so popular the world over that global populations are fished too early and too often, leading to less breeding seasons and thus far fewer fish. Tuna farming, in addition to the usual problems, is often extremely expensive and risky, due to tuna’s aggressive behavior, carnivorous diet, and territory driven nature, making that toro roll a big problem.

Sushi is a culinary art form, and can be beautiful to observe, particularly in a bar as well respected as Jiro’s. The next time we’re out, though, let’s pause for a moment before we indulge in soy-and-ginger laden pleasure and think about balancing more than just what’s between our chopsticks.