Sustainable Sushi and Sashimi is Making Waves in Canadian Foodservice

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Canadian diners are becoming increasingly educated on the negative impact world-wide industrial fishing has had on the environment and, similarly, foodservice operators have become savvier about the way they source, cook and promote seafood on their menus. For sushi and sashimi operations, the question of sustainability can be especially pressing.

Recent research by Chicago-based Technomic indicates 43 per cent of American consumers believe it’s important that the environment is not negatively impacted by the seafood they eat, even though the idea of wild-caught seafood is more appealing than farmed. The generational divide comes into play here, though, with younger consumers finding the term “wild caught” more concerning due to possible environmental impact.

In all cases, knowledge is power — having the ability to relay seafood-traceability information to diners will only have positive impacts on Canadian sushi and sashimi establishments.

At One Tuna in North Lake, P.E.I., Jason Tompkins buys and processes locally caught, wild bluefin tuna for foodservice. Chefs, such as Inn at Bay Fortune’s Michael Smith, are praising Tompkins for bringing a sustainable bluefin-tuna option to the supply chain.

“At One Tuna, we offer chefs full traceability on their tuna because the fishermen here [in P.E.I.] only get one fish per season,” Tompkins explains. “For the past 15 to 20 years, we’ve divided our bluefin-tuna quota amongst our licensed fishermen. We [currently] have 338 license-holders, so they each get one fish. When you’re only allowed one fish per season, you take your time to make sure that fish is the absolute best quality.”

With its newly built, CFIA-approved processing facility, One Tuna can break down and flash-freeze the fish into manageable portions, which is ideal for smaller sushi and sashimi restaurants. Along with their portion of bluefin, One Tuna clients also receive information regarding the captain and fishing vessel, tag number and catch date, including photos.

“Chefs have the power to bring this good-news story to the diner,” Tompkins says. “This is a one-at-a-time, day-boat, rod-and-reel, wild-caught bluefin tuna — an artisanal-style fishery. The information [about our fishery] has always been out there, but we’ve never been able to get the story across to the chefs because [previously] we were working through distributers.”

According to a 2017 stock assessment by the ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas), the Atlantic-Canada region has seen an increase in bluefin biomass over the last decade. Many attribute this increase to the quota system, as well as the care small-scale fishing operations take to maintain their piece of the ocean.

“What we want to do now is connect the boat with the plate; we want to tell the story of the fisherman who only takes one,” Tompkins continues. “We want to start tying this together, so to sushi and sashimi providers we say ‘if you choose to have bluefin on your menus, please carry wild Canadian, support local fishermen and help tell their story.’”

In 2018, One Tuna brought in just under 400 whole fish from the Maritime region. Of that, around 40 per cent was sold within Canada and much of it to sushi and sashimi operations.

Wild-caught seafood might sound more appealing to Canadian sushi and sashimi diners, but it’s not always the more-sustainable option. As consumers become more educated regarding which types of sushi and sashimi are environmentally safe to order, Canadian-farmed species are also receiving their share of the limelight.

At Calgary’s Shokunin Izakaya, chef Darren MacLean often serves aburi (torched) Gindara nigiri, served with saikyo sauce, scallions and togarashi. Gindara is a type of farmed sablefish from B.C. — a sustainably raised, white-fleshed fish with excellent attributes that make it ideal for sushi and sashimi. Don Read, president of Surrey, B.C.-based Willowfield Enterprises representing Gindara Sablefish, says the farmed sablefish is considered higher quality than wild.

“Gindara Sablefish delivers a completely new item for sushi restaurants,” he says. “Wild sablefish is not used as fresh, raw sashimi or sushi due to the prevalence of parasites among the wild population. Gindara Sablefish does not contain parasites and can be eaten truly raw.”

Aside from a lack of parasites, Gindara Sablefish has a firm, less gelatinous flesh, making it ideal for serving in its raw state.

“As sashimi, Gindara Sablefish provides an extremely clean fresh fish with a unique snap in its texture,” Read continues. “It also goes from processing to shipping within 24 hours, providing maximum shelf life for sushi restaurants.”

Because the sablefish is so carefully bred with its own broodstock and the farm provides “egg-to-plate” traceability, the fish live in a healthful environment. Unlike the wild species, farmed sablefish are consistent in size, quality and pricing.

“Many fish species used in sushi can receive consumption warnings due to environmental contaminants,” Read explains. “Using controlled and tested feed sources, Gindara Sablefish does not fall under the same advisories as its wild cousins.”

Gindara Sablefish is Ocean-Wise certified and works closely with the Vancouver-based organization to ensure the sustainability of its fishery. Sophika Kostinyuk, manager of Ocean Wise’s Seafood Program, praises Gindara Sablefish as a delicious seafood option for sushi and sashimi operations.

In her role, Kostinyuk works closely with Canadian operators who want to feature sustainable seafoods on their menus, including a number of sushi and sashimi chefs and restaurateurs.

“Seafood for sushi and sashimi in Canada is [currently] comprised of both farmed and wild species,” she explains. “Canada both produces and exports significant volumes and varieties of seafood, so knowing what the most-sustainable options are can sometimes prove challenging.”

There are many Ocean Wise-recommended sushi and sashimi options in Canada. The organization has introduced a tool to help identify which seafood is most ecologically sustainable to consume. To be recommended means the seafood comes from well-managed, healthy stocks and doesn’t negatively impact habitats or other species.

“There’s still work to be done in the sushi-and-sashimi sector in Canada,” Kostinyuk admits. “That said, Ocean Wise has the information to help any business transition to a more-sustainable menu.”

Aside from farmed species, other recommended species often featured in sushi and sashimi operations include farmed geoduck, scallops and spot prawns, as well as Canadian-caught albacore tuna and chum, pink and sockeye species of salmon.

“Our sushi and restaurant partners receive regular updates on new assessments for seafood species and have access to staff training, web modules and social-media content for their communications channels,” Kostinyuk continues. “Speaking with an Ocean Wise seafood-supplier partner provides a direct line to sourcing sustainable choices.”

Citing consumer demand as one of the main reasons operators approach Ocean Wise, Kostinyuk says its seafood program currently works with 750 businesses and 3,000 locations across Canada.

One such business is Fukasaku in Prince Rupert, B.C., where chef Dai Fukasaku has consistent access to some of the freshest seafood in Canada. When he opened his doors in 2013, he became one of the first sushi chefs in the country to feature 100-per-cent sustainable, locally sourced seafood on his menu.

“We’re serving genuine Japanese sushi and sashimi made by Japanese chefs,” he says. “Prince Rupert is a town with 12,000 people — it’s a really small community. I came [to B.C.] from Japan in 2008 and always thought about opening a restaurant. When the opportunity came, I decided to make it 100-per-cent sustainable, local sushi.”

Menu items include The Pacific Medley (a combination of sushi and sashimi for one, two or more people starting at $32) and the West Coast Sashimi Palette (featuring an assortment of sashimi for one, two or more, starting at $26). The featured seafood changes constantly depending on what’s available, fresh and of the best quality at the time.

“My focus [in the beginning] was to see if I could open a sushi restaurant featuring only local seafood,” he explains. “I have connections with our local fishery, so when I realized I could do that, I contacted Ocean Wise, [which] gave me a list of its approved seafoods. At this time, no one was doing entirely local, sustainable sushi and sashimi — and I like challenging myself.”

Ocean Wise seafood recommendations can change from year to year depending on stock levels and the overall health of different fisheries, but Fukasaku has been lucky — none of his menu items have had to be replaced in the six years he’s been open.

“My biggest challenge, as a small restaurateur, is to secure the local seafood before they send it south,” he continues. “They’re working with 10,000 lbs. of tuna and I’m only asking for 60 lbs. at a time. Having the connection with the local fishing industry helps.”

Since Fukasaku began his journey with sustainable sushi and sashimi, others — across all segments — have followed suit. Bento Sushi, based in Toronto, is a multi-channel foodservice business that provides quality, pre-packaged sushi and Asian-inspired foods to foodservice outlets (including grocery chains, universities, hospitals and airports) throughout North America.

Bento has built its brand around delivering accessible, delicious sashimi and sushi products; with an emphasis on using sustainable seafood. Erica Gale, Bento’s vice-president of Marketing and Sustainability, says as the second-largest sushi brand in North America, it’s firmly aware of its impact.

“Bento is committed to making the right choices today to ensure a sustainable tomorrow for future generations,” she says. “We understand our ability to impact the lives of our customers, partners and the communities we serve.”

With more than 21-million servings of Bento sushi sold annually, popular products include the Crazy Combo (classic California rolls paired with avocado, shrimp and fish rolls, $12.99) and the Crunch Roll (tempura shrimp roll with cucumber and avocado, topped with spicy sauce, teriyaki saucen and crispy onions, $8.99).

Working with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the surimi (often known as imitation crab meat) that Bento uses — which is the most-used protein in its sushi rolls — is 100-per-cent MSC certified. The brand makes other sustainable seafood choices, as well.

“Bento does not sell unagi (eel), which is a traditional Japanese protein for sushi,” Gale says. “Eel is on the red (or avoid) list from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list due to being endangered in the wild.”

From a quality perspective, Gale maintains that sustainably sourced seafood is just as high quality — and often higher — than the alternative. She claims for sushi and sashimi restaurants looking to purchase sustainable seafood, it’s all about knowing your vendors.

“Customers are becoming more educated and informed; they’re purchasing products from companies they trust to be making the best decisions,” Gale says. “[It’s important to] become educated on your vendor partners.”

Written by Janine Kennedy

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