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Sushi and Salmonella – Do you need to be worried?

slicing sushiWhen we think of sushi, we think of a healthy and delicious meal. We often forget that while eating sushi is in general safe, there is always an elevated risk to consuming a raw product. Even with government regulations, sometimes bacteria and tainted fish can enter the country, and only cooking food completely can render it safe. In March 2012, 425 people were infected with Salmonella in the US, the vast majority from consuming spicy tuna rolls. The culprit was a shipment of frozen raw yellowfin from India. The FDA concluded that it was likely that the Salmonella Bareilly was caused by inadequate sanitary controls after harvest, during processing and packaging. The sushi was distributed mainly in 4 grocery stores.

Salmonella affects over a million Americans every year, with an estimated 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths. Illnesses can last 4 to 7 days and in severe cases demand hospitalization. A recent case of Salmonella linked with sushi affected an estimated 62 people in 11 states, linked to raw fish imported through the Osamu Corporation from Indonesia. Once again, raw tuna was the culprit, sending 11 people to the hospital with severe symptoms. The bulk of the sushi was bought at workplace cafeterias and grocery stores.

Does this mean that grocery store sushi is less safe than in a restaurant? While 2 incidents is perhaps not enough to point the finger at groceries stores, cafeterias, and cheaper sushi options, I would advise caution with buying sushi that has been sitting out in the open. When you are putting yourself at risk, you need to be able to trust the restaurant or store that you are buying sushi from.

Can freezing the fish make it safe? One method used to make sushi safer is the process of deep freezing. New York has implemented rules requiring raw fish to be frozen in order to kill parasites. In fact, fish is often flash frozen in freezers directly on the vessels which catch them for transportation and to reduce parasites such as worms which can live in tuna and be harmful to humans. While deep freezing is useful against parasites, it can only slow, not stop, bacteria like salmonella. Only the cooking process can eliminate salmonella and other food born illnesses.

What is the bottom line? There are always going to be risks associated with eating raw food. If you are pregnant or have a weakened immune system, you should not consider eating sushi or sashimi. If you’re a healthy adult who does not have other risk factors, then you need to make the choice for yourself. One strategy for reducing risk is to use the FDA’s website at to keep yourself appraised of any recent outbreaks of salmonella poisoning and other illnesses associated with eating sushi. And while I can’t tell you what to do – make sure you trust where you are getting your sushi from.

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Have we been eating sushi incorrectly all along?

Ka-Me rice crackers sushi 
It would appear, according to Ka-Me brand crackers, that we have been eating our maki sushi wrong this whole time!

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WWF Living Planet Report offers dire news for sushi lovers

bluefin tunaThe World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) publishes the Living Planet Report every two years. A special edition was published in 2015 delves into the deeper implications of the 2014 report on our world’s oceans, and with it comes alarming news for sushi lovers worldwide.

While in the last 40 years the human population has risen 75% from 4 billion to 7 billion, the world’s mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and fish populations have fallen by half. Some species have fared worse than the average decline. The report shows an index of 17 species of mackerel and tuna plummeting 74% between 1970 and 2010.

Fishery collapses can be drastic and sudden. Canadians will remember the collapse of the cod fisheries of the Atlantic, where a combination of greed and lack of foresight caused a catastrophic drop in the largest cod fishery of the world, reducing the biomass of the species to 1% of its former levels in the early 1990s. Even now over a decade later, stocks have not recovered. The world depends on fish as a source of food and a source of income, but this dependence has put a toll on species that are struggling to stay alive as demand grows.

There is a huge focus worldwide on populations of bluefin and yellowfin tuna, along with other premium sushi fish, but there needs to be an awareness of the base of the food chain. Feed conversion ratios for large fish such as tuna are generally between 15-20:1, meaning that for every kilogram of tuna in the grocery store, there was a required 15 to 20 kilograms of smaller fish – including mackerel. This is one of the reasons that it is difficult to farm tuna. The species, as an apex predator, require a huge amount of food to sustain their speed and size. If mackerel populations lose more of their biomass, the impact on apex predators and the entire ocean food chain will be felt.

The World Wide Fund for Nature is obviously a pro-conservation and pro-nature group. While the decline of 74% in tuna and mackerel populations may seem drastic, it is important to note that the majority of the decline occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. While there has been slight decline since, populations have not been continuing the steep plummeting of past decades. Unfortunately, there have been no signs of overall recovery, but ocean conservation groups such as the Marine Conservation Society and Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch still list most species of mackerel as “fish to eat” and “best choices”. Mackerel is however missing from the Marine Stewardship Council’s list of fish to eat. When mackerel can experience such a drop and still be considered a good choice to eat compared to other options, I personally start to get worried at how bleak the big picture is.

As stocks of fish drop, competition for dwindling supplies intensify. China, the nation with the largest fishing fleet in the world, has been increasing their fishing fleet, especially for tuna. Radio Australia reported in 2003 that Chinese fleets were receiving 4.1 Billion dollars in subsidies for fishing tuna, with a 5 year plan to increase the fleet of 1300 by 300 as of 2015.

Nations continue to fish against illegal fishing in their waters. Indonesia blew up 41 foreign fishing boats in May of 2015, including risking an international incident by exploding a Chinese fishing boat seized in 2009. There have also been allegations of under-reporting of international catch by China. The Fish and Fisheries report in 2014 estimates that the true catch was an estimated 4.6 million tonnes per year, whereas China declared only 386,000 tonnes. This was facilitated by increased catch in African waters, where it is more difficult to monitor and regulate fisheries. For further information, this article can be found at (PDF document).

The barriers to sustainable fishing are huge. Fisheries form the livelihood of over 10% of the world, and restricting fishing can lead to thousands of people forced into unemployment without marketable skills outside of their industry. Increased regulation leads to increases in prices, and as prices rise the reward for illegal and unreported fishing increase as well. The reality of the global oceans means that multiple countries compete for the same resources, and if any one country voluntarily reduces their fishing, their economies suffer while other countries profit. While international agreements are in place to support sustainable fishing, they have been unable to bring back the populations of fish to the levels seen before industrialized fishing and trawling. Even more depressing, it is not only overfishing that is the cause of the decline. Ocean acidification, rising sea temperatures and population are all putting our oceans at risk. If populations are going to return to healthy levels, a concrete, global effort to protect our ocean’s will be required.

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From Zero to Hero: Six popular foods that used to be for peasants

cat-sushiIf you know about sushi’s history, you might have heard that tuna used to be considered peasant’s food in Japan. Bluefin toro is one of the most expensive fish in the world, and is universally considered a delicacy. The only people who ate it in ancient Japan were people that could not afford anything else! The fatty belly of tuna (toro) which is now the most prized cut of the fish was considered absolutely repulsively disgusting, and people did everything they could to hide the flavor of the fish.

This inspired me to write about six foods (including tuna) that went from dirt cheap to trendy – and usually out of my price range.

1. Lobster
I’ve lived in Prince Edward Island, the beautiful province on the east coast of Canada and one of the few places in the world where you can get delicious, fresh and affordable lobster. When you think of lobster, you might think of fancy restaurants and snooty waiters bringing out meals on silver platters. If you could go back in time, do you know what you would see? Rich kids with ultra cool baloney and spam sandwiches making fun of the poor kids forced to eat the disgusting, sea crawling bugs. They were often ground up and ploughed into the soil to add nutrients and help crops grow.
Of course, back then lobster was not served up with delicious garlic butter, but its change from trash of the sea to its high falootin’ current status is one of the biggest social class jumps a food can make! The next time you are lucky enough to dig into a delicious lobster dinner, just remember that not so long ago you would have been taunted for eating the “garbage of the sea”.

2. Snails
Snails have french cuisine to thank for their elevated status in the culinary world. Well, maybe thanks is too strong a word – I’m sure if you asked the snails being served up to hungry customers, they might disagree. Mollusks have been eaten in many cultures since the dawn of humanity, but pulling the live creatures out of their shells and chowing down can’t have been pleasant! Once again, the addition of butter made a huge difference, bringing these lowly creatures to the forefront of the culinary world.

3. Chicken wings
Unlike the other items mentioned in this article, chicken wings are more likely to be found in a pub on a Wednesday wing night than in a fancy restaurant. But that does not change the fact that one of the most popular parts of the chicken used to be considered the garbage of the animal, thrown out or sold to whoever was desperate enough to buy it. There was simply very little meat on the bone, and what little there was was considered stringy and meager. Chicken wings surged to popularity in the ’60s when people started to realize that wings and drumsticks were the perfect way to transport delicious sauces from the plate to your mouth. Now you can find them at any pub or bar, and even most restaurants – sometimes for 12 bucks a plate!

4. Sushi
You guessed it, our favorite food was born out of necessity, not culinary genius. Before refrigeration, people had to be clever about storing their meats and seafood. Some cultures used salting and curing, and some (the Japanese) decided that they could ferment sushi with rice. It wasn’t tasty, it stank, but it was a way to preserve protein for fishing villages. It was tasty, but you had to hold your nose!

5. Tuna
The fish that inspired me to write this post. This fish was considered so disgusting that people would literally bury the tuna under the ground to make the muscles ferment, which managed to make the fish barely palatable to the poor sods who had to eat it. The fish did not manage to shake it’s status as a poor man’s food, even being used for fertilizer and cat food during it’s ignominious history.

6. Caviar
Fish eggs, otherwise known as caviar, have been eaten since the 12th century in Persia (Iran) and what is now Russia, and was eaten by the bowl full with porridge by fisherman. It was considered a by-catch, or waste, when they would sell the fish. Yet it was plentiful, and not even considered edible by anyone but the lowly fishermen who ate whatever they could at the time. That was until Ivan the Terrible developed a taste for it, its status changed and it immediately became a delicacy for the aristocrats.

I hope you enjoyed this post! Were there any foods you remember being way cheaper in your childhood? Feel free to share it in the comments!

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Invasive Species Profile: Tiger Prawn (or what’s happening to ama ebi?)

ama ebi

Only ten percent of the global shrimp market is sourced from the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, but they remain important areas for the global ebi and ama-ebi market. The Gulf of Mexico region is important for consumers who wish to have seafood sourced in a manner with stricter consumer regulations than the other 90% of the shrimp market, which originates mostly from Southeast Asia and South America. The Gulf of Mexico is home to four native species of shrimp, including brown shrimp, white shrimp, pink shrimp, and rock shrimp. The native species are currently being threatened by Giant Tiger Prawns (Penaeus Monodon), which are the largest, most virile species of shrimp in the world. These tiger-striped monstrous shrimp can be over a foot long, and can spawn up to a million eggs at a time.

How did these shrimp travel the vast distances between their native habitat and the Gulf of Mexico? There are many theories, some more far flung than others. One possibility is ballast water. Cruise ships, tankers, and cargo carriers use enormous amounts of ballast water in order to give stability to the ship when crossing vast oceans. Ballast water discharge can contain viruses, bacteria, non-native plants, and, in the case of Gulf of Mexico, most likely some unwanted hitchhikers in the form of the foot long tiger prawns.

Ever heard of frogs raining down from the sky? While it might seem crazy, it is possible that hurricanes transported tiger prawns from South America, where the shrimp are farmed, to the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes Earl and Irene took paths in 2010 and 2011 respectively which could have potentially carried the shrimp into the Gulf, or, more probably, simply damaged and destroyed shrimp farms allowing the species to escape into the wild in vast numbers. While this is one of the most unlikely theories as to how Giant Tiger Prawns found their new home in the Gulf of Mexico, it does raise a very valid concern as to the impact of fish farming. Even with non-invasive species, it is possible for diseases to spread in a fish farm and then be released into the wild through accidents or natural disasters. Generally, samples of Tiger Prawns found in the Gulf of Mexico tend to have similar genes, meaning that they could potentially come from the aquaculture industry (fish farms) as there is a much higher incidence of inbreeding in these conditions.

Though the invasive species made an appearance in the Gulf of Mexico in 2006 after an 18 year absence, there is still not a clear consensus of the impact of the invasive species on the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico. As well, their appearance remains a mystery. Where this species came from and what effect they will remains a burning question for the fisheries, as Tiger Prawns are large, virile, and predatory. Even worse, Tiger Prawns are a resistant species, surviving salinity changes better than native shrimps and offering not only competition for resources but the potential to spread diseases to the native populations.

The native species of the Gulf of Mexico span more than just the shrimp market. The crab and oyster market are also multi-million dollar industries which are at risk of invasive species such as the Giant Tiger Prawn – and also another unwanted visitor, the lionfish. The theories as to how Tiger Prawns got into the Gulf of Mexico are just as wild as one strategy to reduce their numbers – eating them! Tiger Prawns are delicious with melted butter, and one proposed solution to the invasion is simply to do what humans do best- overfish, overeat, and consume consume consume until Giant Tiger Prawn populations go the way of the bison.

Fuller, Pam, David Knott, Peter Kingsley-Smith, James Morris, Christine Buckel, Margaret Hunter, and Leslie Hartman. “Invasion of Asian Tiger Shrimp, Penaeus Monodon Fabricius, 1798, in the Western North Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.” Aquatic Invasions 9.1 (2014): 59-70. Web.

Jackson, Scott. “Invasive Species of the Day: Tiger Prawn and Climbing Ferns.” University of Florida Newsletters. N.p., 26 Feb. 2015. Web. 18 Mar. 2015.

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10 Things You Didn’t Know About Sushi

Sushi factsWe all love sushi, and as with many meals you eat in a restaurant or as take away, there are always small mysteries that one never really thinks about. Some of these mysteries aren’t anything that one needs to be concerned about, but some….. Well, may be surprising. I like to know what I’m eating, and I will keep eating sushi until I die, but some of the things that are commonly believed about sushi may not be what they seem. As such, I give you….

Your Wasabi probably isn’t real
Most American sushi restaurants serve a mixture of horseradish and mustard (with green food coloring), with the main emphasis on the horseradish. Even in Japan, true Wasabi is not common. Real wasabi is a difficult to grow rhizome, and has a much more natural herbal taste. Real wasabi comes from grating the root Japonica, which is originally native to China, Taiwan, southern Korea and southern Japan, and is expensive and hard to come by outside Asia. In some restaurants you can ask for the real thing, but expect to pay an additional fee for it.

Sushi is a Chinese creation
Sushi came onto the scene in Japan during the 8th century, but its origins stem from China. The Chinese used a method to preserve food by storing fish in marinated rice. The Japanese started eating the rice along with the fish, and eventually, sushi became an important source of protein (as well as food storage) for the Japanese.

Sushi was originally considered “fast food”
Sushi was an early method of “take out” in Japan. Sushi became a vital source of nutrients for the Japanese, that could be eaten in public, or the theater, or just on the go. Once the Japanese could systematically create sushi the meal finally evolved into what we consider fast food today. Only in the past century has it become upscale and the work of art it is now seen as.

Not everything is raw (“su shi” actually means seasoned/vinegared rice)
The notion that Sushi consists of only raw ingredients is just not true. The assumption that sushi is raw, is an idea that comes from the dish being mainly cold. Modern sushi comes with many cooked additions, and is perfected to match the consistency that 21st century foodies have come to enjoy. Cooked crab, smoked salmon, grilled squid, cooked shrimp, and steamed clams are just some of the delicious ingredients used in sushi today.

You can buy sushi with Bitcoin
The growing fascination with the crypto-currency called “Bitcoin” has finally found its way into the sushi industry. Purchasing sushi with the internet tender isn’t a thing of the future anymore! Many sushi restaurants are currently accepting bitcoin and, in the process, revolutionizing the way we enjoy sushi. Restaurants in California, Massachusetts and France are among the first pioneers in accepting the currency and we are very excited about it.

Sushi is considered a work of art
As much pride as sushi chefs take in taste, the same amount of attention goes into plate presentation. The statement of sushi is expected to be understood by equal parts of the mouth as well as eyes. Chefs from different regions prepare sushi & sashimi and arrange it on the plate according to their own styles, and they spend many years learning the craft of sushi-making. The main emphasis of sushi art are simplicity and natural beauty. Some Itamae (what a sushi chef is called) believe that they capture the motion of fish using flowing plate presentations and different colors.

Sushi is finger food (many types are meant to be eaten with your fingers, like nigiri-zushi (“hand-pressed sushi”)
Despite the lure of mastering the use of chopsticks while enjoying sushi, sushi is actually meant to be eaten with your hands. Thats right, sushi is a finger food and no mean looks will be given for chowing down on sushi with your fingers. Tameki is expected to be eaten with the fingers because of its long shape. Nigiri-zushi actually translates as “hand-pressed sushi” it’s meant to be eaten with one’s fingers! Using chopsticks with some sushi may not only inappropriate, but difficult, even for the pros, and remember, sushi was originally meant to be eaten “on the go.”. Next time you’re out, test your boundaries, and use your (clean) hands! Nice restaurants offer you that steaming hot towel (oshibori) for a reason.

Rice on the outside rolls is an American invention (and not traditional)
The well-known California roll that has rice on the outside was actually invented and popularized in America. The origin of the California roll can be traced to Tokyo section in Los Angeles in the 1970‘s, when a sushi chef was running out of seasonal ingredients. The chef at Tokyo Kaikan restaurant substituted avocado for tuna for consistency and used crab to match the fish taste. The seaweed that was usually added on the outside of the roll proved to be too risky for the average Los Angeles consumer so the chef eventually toned down the difference by moving the seaweed inside, and thus, the California Roll was born.

Don’t dip the rice in soy sauce (shoyu)
Trust the chef on how to enjoy his sushi. One of the most common mistakes a sushi eater can make is not following proper etiquette, and chefs say, put down the soy sauce. The rice soaks up way too much liquid, like a sponge, and can overpower the whole roll. The sushi is actually served on a wooden plate sometimes to keep the rice just at the right consistency, so adding any liquid is defeating the purpose of sushi preparation. Sushi should be eaten as soon as it is made, because that’s the best way to enjoy the flavor (hence the sushi bar will offer the best experience, in the opinion of this author). Adding too many extra ingredients is not only a slight at the chef, but also, a way to ensure that you’re not overdoing the delicate balance of flavors. Hint: dip fish in soy sauce instead.

Eat sushi upside down, with the fish on your tongue, not the rice
According to Sushi trend setters, eating the sushi upside-down is the right way to eat. The fish should touch your tongue first, not the rice. Turning the sushi upside-down, then dipping the fish into the soy sauce ensures that the rice doesn’t soak up too much sauce, and enjoying the roll is moderated properly instead of an over emphasis on one flavor over another. Most sushi chefs have come to expect that American eaters eat the sushi the wrong way, but if you’d like to impress your sushi chef, eat the sushi upside down, particularly if you are in Japan.

BONUS THING! – Buy the itamae (sushi chef) a drink at your usual place, you may be rewarded
This rule is for professionals and should only be attempted by those versed in sushi practice, and this list! Joking of course, but if you would like to wow your chef and gain his respect for future meals with possible extra helpings and special hidden items, buy him a drink! It is honestly not as uncommon as one would think. If you’re not sure what the chef drinks, ask the waitress, and enjoy in the head nods of respect and extra helpings of additional sides! It’s a great way to break the ice, earn the itamae’s respect, and show him you appreciate his efforts.

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Is bigeye tuna feeling the same overfishing pressure as bluefin?

bigeye tunaIf you were skeptical with the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation’s (ISSF) status of healthy for Pacific bigeye tuna, you will, unfortunately, feel vindicated at the recent downgrading of the species stock to orange, meaning that Pacific bigeye is now considered overfished. While bigeye tuna are not in a state of imminent collapse, according to the ISSF, stocks are gradually declining and big picture changes need to be made to the way the species is managed globally. Bigeye tuna is down to 16 percent of its original population, but catch rates have only grown with record breaking catch of the fish by Honolulu in the previous year.

There are 23 major stocks of commercial tuna species, six albacore, four bigeye, four bluefin, five skipjack and four yellowfin stocks. Bigeye tuna account for 10% of the legal fishing of tuna, meaning that bigeye stocks are the third most exploited. It is unclear if the green, or healthy rating that the ISSF accorded to bigeye tuna stocks contributed to the continued decline in health of bigeye population. President Barack Obama has taken steps to protect the fish and other stocks by extending the no-fishing area around pacific islands Jarvis, south Palmyra and Wake, increasing the no-fishing zone which has brought praise by environmental groups and harsh criticism from the fishing industry.

While banning of fishing gear could help contribute to the overall management of bigeye tuna, it is reduction in fishing rates that are needed in order to stop the gradual decline in stock before the viability of the species reaches the tipping point. It is not just a matter of decreasing by-catch and outlawing the most harmful fishing methods, but a matter of global participation in making long term plans that will restore not just bigeye tuna but all at risk tuna stocks.

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The Tsukiji Fish Market is Moving

tsukiji-fish-market-stallThe Tsukiji fish market is the largest and most extravagant in the world. Located in Tokyo, Japan, this bustling market supplies the world with the highest quality product via overnight flights. At a cost of more than $4 billion dollars, the massive market is going to be moved within two years to a controversial new location which was once used to house a gas plant. The new site will be less than two miles away from the current location, easily accessible, and feature a modern, sanitary facility.

The motive for the move? To free up the valuable real estate for more profitable ventures than the estimated $20 million dollars worth of seafood that is bought and sold daily at the historic market. The frantic bustle and chaos of the fish market is set to be tamed with a modern facility twice the size, more sanitary, and temperature controlled, set up for the modern world. It is planned to be efficient, streamlined, and prepared for the global market, with plenty of access to shipping containers and trucks. The more cynical of readers will already know what will be built in its place – resorts, casinos, and tourist traps in anticipation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The Tsukiji fish market is celebrating its 80th anniversary, but its most iconic event, the bluefin tuna auction, could soon be in danger if population levels of the species keep declining.While almost any kind of seafood imaginable can be found at Tsukiji, it is tuna that has become the market’s biggest claim to fame. The pre-dawn tuna auctions became such a spectacle that tourists were banned from visiting the tuna auction, which was later changed to a ban during peak hours. Bluefin tuna has been the greatest attraction of Tsukiji market and is now its greatest infamy. From a conservation point of view, Japan is the greatest threat to bluefin tuna in the world, with the nation’s 127 million population (which corresponds to 1.8% of the world) consuming 80% of the species. Seafood Watch has placed all species of bluefin tuna in their avoid category. The species is one of 23 on the Greenpeace red list of most harmful catches.

It has been considered a mark of status and prestige for restaurants to purchase the first, most expensive bluefin tuna at the market. The first tuna of 2011 sold for $396,000. 2012 saw the price rise to a whopping $736,000, and 2013 was a mind-blowing $1,763,000 for a single fish. The restaurants purchasing these historic, record breaking tuna are losing incredible sums of money, selling the fish as sushi at a huge loss. It is all about status and prestige, and Kiyoshi Kimura, president of Kiyomura Co, has won the bid since 2012.

In 2014, the price of the first bluefin plummeted to $70,000 USD. This year, Kiyoshi Kimura paid only $37,500. If buying the first fish from the market is a mark of success and pride, then the plummeting price could be an indication that more and more restaurants are realizing that they do not want to be known internationally as the purchasers of an at-risk species.

The future of the Tsukiji fish market is one riddled with uncertainty, much like the future of bluefin tuna as a species. The move to a new site which still has deposits of toxic materials is less than ideal for a fish market, and only time will tell if the historic charm and bustle of the fish market will be lost forever.

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Sushi lovers may rejoice as juvenile bluefin tuna harvest is halved

Bluefin TunaBluefin tuna is highly prized, fetching prices in the tens of thousands of dollars for a single fish in famed yearly Japanese auctions. One such bluefin tuna sold for an incredible 1.76 million in 2013, a price which reflects the status and prestige of these animals. The fact is, all three species of bluefin tuna are overfished. Their populations have been decimated to compete with the huge demand that arose with the popularity of sushi worldwide.

How did it happen? Not so long ago, bluefin tuna was considered to be of such poor quality it was literally ground up and sold in cat food. Bluefin tuna has a long history of being considered unfit for human consumption, with the tuna being considered unclean throughout the ancient history of sushi in Japan. Tuna populations remained healthy and vital.

Everything changed in the 1970s, when sushi started to hit the global market and rose to prominence. Suddenly, nobody could get enough of the fatty fish which had just years ago been considered garbage. And while bluefin tuna grew in popularity worldwide, it is the sushi capital of the world, Japan, that consumes the bulk of the fish. Tuna stocks have plummeted, with pacific bluefin tuna seeing a more than 90% percent population decline from historic levels. It is by no means hyperbolic to consider this a devastating blow to the future sustainability of this fish, unless drastic conservation measures are taken.

A recent decision by the Northern Committee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) is a step in the right direction. The meeting, which was held in Fukuoka, Japan, was a week-long process in which the issue of tuna was the main talking point. The plan is to cut the catch of juvenile tuna, or those that weigh less than 30 kilograms and have not yet reached reproductive age, in half. This is essential to the long term survival of the fish as it is the first step in reestablishing a healthy breeding population of the species. But cutting the catch of bluefin tuna is not as easy as it seems when the species it at risk of by-catch, an issue that is currently being address in other venues.

International bodies are not the only ones trying to stop the decline of bluefin tuna. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a 750 page amendment to its managements plan in a effort to help the in danger fish. Bluefin tuna breed in the Gulf of Mexico, and are often killed as a by-catch when large trawling vessels use long-line fishing techniques. In layman terms, long-lines are exactly what they sound like: 30 miles of hook loaded lines that have the precision of fishing with dynamite when you consider the impact to species such as bluefin tuna and swordfish. The amendment, published in August 2014, includes such measures as requiring vessels to have cameras which track the impact of by-catch, improved monitoring systems, and the go ahead for industry funded observer programs and new gear restricted areas.

Bluefin tuna populations are under stress, but decisions at the international and national level are setting the groundworks for a recovery of the fish. The response to the record low levels of bluefin tuna is late but steps are being taken in the right direction for the recovery of the species as a whole.

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FDA and EPA update on seafood consumption

maki sushiSushi is a healthy food which offers great nutritional benefits. However, the FDA has in the past warned about consumption of large, predatory fish which have a higher level of mercury and other contaminants. In an update press release, the FDA has advised in a draft form that pregnant and breastfeeding women, those who are hoping to become pregnant, and young children may need to increase their increase their seafood intake, as long as the fish consumed are low in mercury and are properly cooked. The FDA and EPA have counselled in the past to avoid certain types of seafood and have even recommended limits to consumption, but this is the first time that they are recommending a minimum amount of seafood for new parents, expectant mothers, pregnant women, and small children. In part because of fears over health risks, these groups have had limited seafood consumption, below the levels advised by the FDA to the general public. While this is great news for seafood lovers, it must be advised that the FDA is still cautioning pregnant women and young children to avoid raw fish. This is because pregnant women and young children “often lack strong immune systems and are more at risk for foodborne illnesses.”

The draft, titled “Fish: what pregnant women and parents should know”, will, when finalized, replace the former advice, issued in 2004. The key message of the draft, which can be found at the FDA page is as follows, “Eat 8 to 12 ounces of a variety of fish each week from choices that are lower in mercury. The nutritional value of fish is important during growth and development before birth, in early infancy for breastfed infants, and in childhood.”

Seafood is of great health benefit in that it can contribute to a full and balanced nutritional profile, which is exactly what mothers and their young children need. But that does not mean that all seafood is safe. Pregnant and breastfeeding women, along with persons who are at higher risk for contaminants such as those with a weakened immune system need to exercise caution in choosing the right fish. At this point, the FDA is still advising that certain types of fish be avoided: tilefish, shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and white tuna, although tuna is acceptable in moderation. With the exception of tilefish, these are all large, predatory fish at the top of the food chains and who accumulate a much higher quantity of mercury than smaller species of seafood, such as salmon, shrimp, cod, and other popular choices. While other seafood will give nutritional and developmental benefits, caution must be exercised with freshwater fish, which even cooked can be problematic depending on fish advisories. Remember, due to the risk of parasites in freshwater fish, freshwater fish should never be used for sushi.

Keep in mind, at this point this information is all in draft form, and the FDA will be seeking public consultation before their final advice. As it stands, the current advice is that “women who are pregnant or breastfeeding consume at least 8 and up to 12 ounces of a variety of seafood per week, from choices lower in methyl mercury.” For seafood lovers, that’s great news. For sushi lovers, the rule remains the same: if you are in an at risk group, avoid raw fish. If you would like more information on health risks of seafood, you can check out the draft updated advice at their webpage or, for more sushi related information, our guide to the potential health risks of sushi at our ‘Sushi and Health’ page.

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