Making Sushi Sustainable

There much debate, both in the dive community and outside it, as to whether or not we should eat seafood. Not because it isn’t good for us — which is debatable given mercury levels in many species of fish — but because our voracious consumption of it so far has been devastating to the oceans. Overfishing and by catch are two of the biggest problems facing the oceans, with many species fished to the point of extinction. Are there any alternatives save for giving up seafood altogether? Can sushi ever be sustainable? Yes, say a growing number of sushi restaurants worldwide, including Danish Sticks ‘n’ Sushi.

Starting from within

About five years ago, Sticks ‘n’ Sushi employed a waiter named Jakob Gaard, who had a strong interest and experience in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability. After meeting with the head of the chain, Kim Rahbek, he was transferred from the restaurant floor to a management position and given the official title of CSR manager, but with an internal title of “troublemaker.” His role was to challenge the chain and its practices to not always choose the easy path, but to try to do things better.

“I think it says a lot about the founder of the company, and the values it works on, that he very quickly saw the necessity in what I proposed, even if it was obviously easier to just carry on business as usual,” says Gaard. “At that point, there wasn’t much pressure from the market to take the CSR route, so it was entirely an internal decision.”

A Three-Step Program

Today, the company’s CSR strategy is a 3-step program, starting with their internal elements, such as electricity, water consumption and food waste. The second step is creating sustainability on their menus, and the final step is educating their guests to make sustainable choices. The first step has, by and large, been achieved; the restaurant chain and Gaard are now working on changing the fish on the restaurants’ menus. Today, in menus and on the restaurant website, guests are reminded that the oceans are a precious, finite resource.

Picking the fish

As much as possible, Sticks ‘n’ Sushi select fish species that are not in danger of overfishing, and will often chose one sub-species over another for the same reason. They’re currently using suppliers that comply with MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) standards, a sustainability standard for fish caught in the wild, and increasingly also with ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council), a similar standard for farmed fish. This is done to ensure that the entire process, from the oceans to the fishing vessels to the restaurant, adheres to sustainability standards. In addition, restaurant management visits suppliers frequently, from Norway to Thailand, to make inspections and ensure that all practices are sound, and that all documentation is present and accounted for.

“There’s an advantage to size,” says Gaard. “We’re by no means world leaders in sushi, but we’re a fairly large company, with nine restaurants in Copenhagen and two in London. And that gives us some muscle when dealing with suppliers. If one of our suppliers were to lose a single restaurant, because the supplier can’t live up to that restaurant’s demands for sustainability, it’s not that big a loss for them. If they lose a company of our size, it’s a big deal. So when we make demands on how and what they catch, they’re forced to listen.”

One of the most problematic species in all seafood is tuna, which is severely overfished worldwide, despite remaining quite popular with sushi fans.

“Tuna is probably the most popular type of sushi in the markets we’re in, and of course we’d like to change that,” says Gaard. “We’re actually looking into other species that may be able to replace the tuna, not one species to take over for all uses of it, but various species that, between them, might be able to. And until then, we work with our suppliers to make sure we’re using tuna that has as healthy populations as possible.”

The goal is to use only sustainable-certified fish, in particular from sustainably farmed fish, as these reduce pressure on over-fished populations around the world.

An ongoing process

Jakob Gaard is the first to admit that making sushi, or any other product for that matter, sustainable, isn’t easy.

“I think my title of ‘troublemaker’ indicates that very well,” he says. “I’m here to make the restaurant do the hard thing, because it is the right thing. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process, and not one we claim to be done with. There’s still much to do. And we’re not the only ones, so it’s growing. In the U.S., there’s a chain based in the Pacific Northwest called Bamboo Sushi that I like, they do a lot of good work, too.”

But by shifting around menu items and asking guests to reconsider their choices, isn’t there a risk that some will flee to a perhaps less evangelizing, competing restaurant?

“Maybe,” Gaard says, “but I believe that it may also attract new guests. Ultimately, I think that we, and the seafood industry as a whole, has more to gain than to lose from focusing on sustainability.”

If you do eat seafood and you want to make your seafood choices more sustainable,  use one of the guides for sustainable seafood available at WWF or the Monterey Bay Aquarium and look for MSC or ASC collaborations whenever possible.

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