Sustainable sushi for beginners

Canned tuna is my definition of fast food—cheap, no fuss, delicious and hearty. I always have several canned tuna in my pantry as I usually open a can when I’m either too tired to cook anything more elaborate or too broke to go to a nearby restaurant. With a bit of oil and onions, I can sauté a can of tuna and give myself a tuna-mustard sandwich spread, a more filling salad of tuna and greens or plain ulam for leftover rice. Sometimes I use it to make myself a big batch of tuna spaghetti sauce over the weekend, store it in the fridge, and bring pasta and sauce as baon during the busy working days that I can’t even get out of the office for a quick meal.

Whenever I buy tuna in the supermarket, I just buy either of my two favorite brands just because I like the taste. I never considered anything more. This, despite the fact that I’ve been on a sustainable eating journey for years. It never occurred for me, that perhaps, that brand of canned tuna that I was putting in my shopping cart was not sustainably sourced after all.

But it’s not just canned tuna that we have to consider here. If you are like me who treat yourself to some sushi and sashimi once in a while, you might also want to step back and think how that tuna got into your plate. And no, I’m not talking about that popular sashimi chef that was recently brought in by the trendiest Japanese restaurant around the block.

It’s the sustainable sourcing of tuna that highlighted this year’s meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) in Manila. Delegates to the five-day annual meeting, which will be concluded on December 7, are expected to reach a consensus on the conservation and management measures on highly migratory fish stocks, such as tuna. These measures are legally binding and are meant to curb illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and protect marine and bird species.

The meeting has not been publicized, and even the media has limited access to the sessions held in Philippine International Convention Center. But the meeting’s agenda is significant for any tuna consumer—especially those who chooses an eco-friendly way to dine.

Of particular concern among WCPFC members, which include the Philippines, are tropical tunas, such as skipjack, yellowfin and bigeye. Of the three, skipjack tuna is perhaps the one we often eat as this is often processed as canned tuna. Yellowfin and bigeye tuna, meanwhile, are the kind of tuna that you’ll probably be eating when you order ahi tuna sashimi in a sushi restaurant.

The western and central Pacific Ocean is one of the biggest sources of tuna and accounted for nearly 60 percent of the global tuna catch in 2016, according to a statement issued by the WCPFC secretariat. This is equivalent to 2.9 million metric tons of tuna, worth over $5 billion. Annual Philippine tuna catch is at 248,000 metric tons, or roughly 10 percent, of the total tuna catch in the Western and Central Pacific region.

Tuna is indeed economically valuable and one of the most widely eaten fish. But harvesting tuna from the ocean is not always sustainable. Common fishing methods like using large purse-seine nets with fish aggregating device (FAD) and using long lines of baited hooks (a.k.a. longlining) don’t only threaten the global tuna population but also harm other marine species.

FADs are buoys used to attract and catch fish. When large fishing vessels use large purse-seine nets with FADs to catch skipjack, these nets also end up accidentally catching other marine animals like sharks, sea turtles and dolphin. Some of them, like sea turtles, are endangered and being caught (and later killed) by fishermen, threatening marine biodiversity. Another problem is that, these nets can incidentally catch young yellowfin and bigeye tuna, precluding them from breeding and repopulating.

As a result of such practices, the International Union for Conservation of Nature wanted to classify yellowfin as a “near  threatened” species, while bigeye is considered “vulnerable.” That list, however, was published in 2011. I haven’t seen a more updated version. But the latest report by the WCPFC’s Scientific Committee offered much hope: bigeye, skipjack and yellowfin are not overfished.

The committee, however, recommended the reduction of the use of FADs to boost fishery yields. Likewise, the United States-based nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts and environmental group Greenpeace—observers in the WCPFC annual meet—proposed for more effective controls on purse seine and longline gears, limiting the use of FADs in purse seine fishery and a more transparent reporting on FAD use.

The results of this week’s agreement will only be published online next week and I will share my insights on them in my future columns.

In the meantime, if you want to know more about sustainable tuna/seafood consumption you might want to check out the sustainable seafood initiative by local non-governmental organizations, retailers, hotels and restaurants at https://www.facebook.com/sustainableseafoodweekph/.

 

Prime Sarmiento is a longtime business journalist who specializes in food, agribusiness and commodities-trade reporting. Her stories have been published in both local and international publications, including Nikkei Asian Review, China Daily, Science and Development Network and Dow Jones Newswires. 

 

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