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Sushi industry in Pacific Northwest mulls going green

Sustainable seafood questions loom for Northwest sellers

By Aviva Bechky, The Seattle Times
Published: September 2, 2023, 6:01am
4 Photos
Batsukh Sevjid cuts a bluefin tuna from Spain, weighing more than 500 pounds, for customer orders July 18 at Young Ocean's facility in Kent.
Batsukh Sevjid cuts a bluefin tuna from Spain, weighing more than 500 pounds, for customer orders July 18 at Young Ocean's facility in Kent. (Photos by Erika Schultz/Seattle Times) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — The fish carver slides his knife into a 550-pound bluefin tuna shortly after 6 a.m. on a mid-July morning. His blade makes a sound, click-click-click, as it rattles along the fish’s bones.

Batsukh Sevjid’s efficient cuts speak to plenty of experience preparing tuna for Kent-based seafood supplier Young Ocean, Inc. Standing in a chilled room, he slices the 5-foot-long bluefin from tail to neck and back, sectioning it into long quarters of deep red, highly prized flesh. A second employee cuts those loins into neat chunks. A third takes a spoon to detached racks of bones, scraping off bits of meat that will later be stuffed into tuna rolls.

In a matter of hours, they transform the fish, which arrived on a plane from Spain the night before, into tidy portions that will be served at sushi restaurants throughout the Pacific Northwest.

This is a typical morning at Young Ocean, which imports fresh and frozen fish from around the world to its warehouse in Kent. Drivers deliver the company’s products to about 150 to 200 establishments in the Pacific Northwest each weekday. Sushi chefs typically buy fish from a number of sources, ranging from local fishermen to national seafood supplier True World Foods, but Young Ocean is one of the largest regional suppliers specifically marketed toward sushi restaurants.

The result? If you’ve eaten sushi around Seattle, you’ve likely enjoyed Young Ocean’s fish.

The company’s work helps illustrate how dishes like salmon and tuna nigiri get to your plate. But some of Young Ocean’s most popular products, including bluefin tuna, are also at the core of a long-standing question within the sushi industry: Are these seafoods sustainable? Many advocates say they’re concerned about overfishing and other fallout from the global seafood industry. They also say the push to make sushi more sustainable isn’t progressing in cities like Seattle, while experts note that the U.S. lacks the infrastructure to regulate imported seafood sustainability.

Meanwhile, interest in sushi is swelling: IBISWorld found that the number of sushi restaurants in the country increased an average of 4 percent per year over the last five years. In Seattle, the data’s more nebulous — but regardless, the national trend means growing demand for a finite number of fish. And as long as that demand remains, environmental advocates and suppliers like Young Ocean agree: Fish like bluefin will keep being delivered.

What is sustainable sushi?

Washington might be known for its seafood, but Seattle sushi remains an international industry at heart.

Products like albacore tuna and spot prawn can come from Vancouver, B.C. Wild geoduck and San Juan uni can be sourced locally. But many, many types of seafood can only be found far abroad.

Enter companies like Young Ocean, which bring in fish from farms, fisheries and other suppliers and prepare them for restaurants. The bluefin tuna Young Ocean offers comes from the East Coast, Spain and Mexico. Its fresh salmon comes from Canada, Norway and Scotland. Hundreds more species of frozen fish are shipped from China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia.

“Our job is to provide what the chefs want, so they tell us what they want, and we do it,” said Sean Chae, Young Ocean’s director.

At the same time, Chae said he tries to source as ethically as possible, within customers’ constraints: “as fish industry veterans, we understand the importance of sustainably caught wild fisheries, and sustainably managed farmed fisheries. Both of those are good for long-term business, and we intend to stay in this business long term.”

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However, the international nature of the game can make assessing sushi’s environmental impact tricky. Complicating matters further, Casson Trenor, the author of the book “Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time,” said the word “sustainable” doesn’t mean anything legally because it’s not federally regulated. Unlike “organic,” which is a term regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, anyone can label their seafood products “sustainable.”

“People can use it earnestly or people can use it more for marketing purposes,” Trenor said.

Generally speaking, conversations about seafood sustainability focus on environmental and social impacts of fishing or farming on particular marine species and its surrounding environment. Only recently are more experts considering the carbon footprint of flying seafood internationally.

In essence, “sustainable seafood comes from fisheries or aquaculture that minimize harmful environmental impacts, assures a good and fair working condition and supports livelihoods,” said Corbett Nash, the outreach manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program.

Seafood Watch rates seafood products by sustainability, producing guides that code seafoods green, yellow or red. Among the red-coded foods: bluefin tuna, eel and octopus — all popular throughout Seattle.

But not every sushi restaurant relies on these items. For instance, when sushi chef Hajime Sato learned he was using endangered species at Mashiko in West Seattle in 2009, he stopped.

Sato began looking for underused seafoods, buying bycatch, or animals unintentionally caught while fishing for a different species. For instance, he bought octopus from shrimp fisheries that may otherwise discard them.

Without items like bluefin or eel, sales went down about 20 percent almost immediately, Sato said. But the restaurant is now going strong, though Sato has departed for Michigan, where he runs sustainable sushi spot Sozai Restaurant.

Becoming sustainable is doable, he said, but doesn’t happen enough. Ultimately, he thinks “people don’t care.”

System of quality control

So how do you make the sushi industry more environmentally friendly?

Individual chefs, like Sato, could choose to go sustainable. Suppliers like Young Ocean could limit what they carry and ensure they have information to give chefs regarding the sustainability of the products they sell. (Some suppliers, like those in Sea Pact, a group of environmentally focused North American seafood companies, have chosen to do so.)

But most people with stakes in the sushi industry, from suppliers to restaurateurs to academics, say consumer demand is what drives the sustainability of the fish on the table.

Here’s a bird’s-eye view of how the business functions. In the U.S., fisheries are typically well-managed, with the majority of stocks considered sustainably harvested, according to Ray Hilborn, a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, and Jessica Gephart, an assistant professor at American University who studies the global seafood trade and its intersection with the environment.

However, Gephart said she estimates 60 percent of the seafood industry relies on imports from outside the U.S. Others have estimated the amount of seafood imported to be as high as 90 percent.

Country by country, regulations on fisheries and farms vary wildly. They may be monitored for environmental impact, but seafood from many international farms and fisheries can still be imported. U.S. laws on seafood imports mostly focus on food safety and more recently, preventing illegal fishing and bycatch of animals like dolphins, Gephart said. They don’t focus on sustainability more generally.

Beyond the regulatory approach, international certification systems like the Marine Stewardship Council and Responsible Fisheries Management give a stamp of approval to fisheries that meet certain requirements, including ensuring their fish populations aren’t in decline. Other third-party certifiers monitor seafood farms for criteria such as the sustainability of the feed given to farmed fish and the amount of antibiotics used.

Whether or not fisheries and farms get accreditation is driven by customer demand, said Brandii O’Reagan, fisheries outreach specialist with Washington Sea Grant. Someone — the fishery, farm or an outside party — has to pay for each certification process.

When Young Ocean chooses vendors, Chae said the company often sources from fisheries and farms with sustainability- and management-related certifications — all of its fresh Atlantic salmon farmers, for instance, have certification from Best Aquaculture Practices and Aquaculture Stewardship Council. Chae also visits vendors as far as Indonesia and Vietnam to check sanitary practices, temperature control and more.

However, as a business owner, Chae’s top priority is meeting customer demand. He has a pretty simple bottom line: He gives the chefs what they want — and that’s not always sustainable.

Business perspective

Sean Chae’s father, Kevin Chae, started Young Ocean in 1998 as a one-man business. Over the past 25 years, Sean Chae said they’ve heard a common theme from chefs: More fresh fish.

That’s been good for business: By the time Sean Chae joined Young Ocean during the pandemic, the company had hired about 30 employees. It’s since added 20 more. The Chae family is currently setting up a Portland warehouse.

Now, Sean Chae supervises a 40,000-square-foot facility near 84th Avenue South in Kent. Seafood makes up the majority of Young Ocean’s sales, Chae said, though the facility also sells meat and items like soy sauce, ginger and rice. (Separately, the company exports Alaskan seafood to a global market and can also deliver fish to individual consumers around Puget Sound.)

Young Ocean employees work long hours. Before sunrise every weekday, workers start deciding what fish to get from a freezer kept below 0 degrees. Throughout the morning, employees fillet salmon, cut up tuna and feed meat into a mechanical slicer. Fifteen to 20 refrigerated trucks deliver pallets of boxed-up foods to hundreds of restaurants throughout the morning and afternoon.

In total, the facility handles over 1,000 different products — which Chae said makes it “impossible” to implement a set sustainability policy across their entire business.

Even sustainability-focused sushi restaurants, which handle a smaller quantity of goods than suppliers, can struggle to establish a set policy given the individual environmental challenges of each seafood.

Taichi Kitamura, the owner and executive chef at Eastlake’s Sushi Kappo Tamura, has wrestled with tough choices, like whether to sell bluefin. When he opened the restaurant in 2010, he refused to offer it. After all, bluefin tuna has long been considered a poster child of unsustainable seafood.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch categorizes the fish as red for “avoid.” Population levels crashed to about 1.5 percent of historical levels in 2010, according to Nash, the Seafood Watch outreach manager. Though they’ve begun recovering, Nash said he wants to see more data and ensure comprehensive harvest strategies are in place so bluefin tuna populations can be sustainable for future generations.

But in the eyes of Hilborn, the UW professor, the population of Atlantic bluefin tuna has bounced back enough to eat again. In a controversial decision, MSC certified its first Atlantic bluefin fishery in 2020. And when Kitamura heard that the number of bluefin had risen, he opted to put it on the menu.

“I feel OK serving it,” Kitamura said. “And honestly, it’s very delicious. And if I don’t serve it, I would lose … in the sushi restaurant competition.”

Struggling for change

When restaurants aiming to sell sustainable sushi began opening in the late 2000s, Trenor, the “Sustainable Sushi” author, said leaders were tight-knit. Since then, he said the lack of an agreed-upon philosophy has diffused the movement as it’s grown.

People run sustainable sushi joints with very different principles: Trenor founded sustainable sushi restaurants in California, Hawaii and Nevada. Most now have vegan menus, featuring ingredients like green mango and eggplant. Meanwhile, Portland-based sustainable sushi brand Bamboo Sushi — which operates a Seattle location at University Village — relies largely on outside certifications, like MSC, ASC or the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s listings, to decide what seafoods to serve, according to Bamboo’s vice president of culinary, Elijah Lehrer.

Staying sustainable, whatever one’s definition, requires constantly staying up-to-date on industry news, Kitamura said.

“It’s important to be fluid about this, because this is nature that we’re talking about,” he said. “If we are stuck with information a year ago, the situation’s (now) completely different.”

Because of that, Kitamura invests a lot of time into research. But he hasn’t necessarily seen many of his competitors here working to follow in his footsteps.

Mariah Kmitta, Sato’s successor as co-owner and sushi chef at Mashiko, said she’s noticed a little more awareness around sustainability from her customers. For the whole industry to shift, however, she said regular sushi eaters might have to change their habits.

“It’s all about consumer spending,” Kmitta said. “Once people stop buying it, then the back end has to make changes.”

Nash, the Seafood Watch outreach manager, agreed. Telling individual consumers to research the provenance of each item can be a lot to ask, he acknowledged, but he thinks it can be effective.

But from a pragmatic standpoint, Chae doesn’t think the seafood supply industry would be able to evolve overnight even if customers did start demanding “sustainable” seafood. In fact, he predicts the change would cause “huge confusion over ‘what is sustainable’ and ‘who decides sustainability.’”

He’d follow market changes, but for now, he thinks the status quo will remain in place.

“I don’t think (regular customers) go in with the mindset of ordering only fish that’s sustainable,” Chae said. “We’ve never really heard that from a chef before.”

That means business will likely remain the same for Young Ocean and suppliers all over the country. Workers will come in at 4 a.m. to grab items like yellowtail from the freezer. They’ll feed salmon through a descaling machine and fillet them one by one. They’ll slice up bluefin tuna as reddish ice slushes into a drain in the floor.

This is the behind-the-scenes of the sushi industry: Practical. Efficient. Occasionally bloody. And, like any other business, designed to give you whatever you’re willing to buy.