Calculating the true cost of sushi

The true cost of sushi is difficult to calculate. We all know sushi is a pricey delicacy. But its environmental cost is even greater.

the true cost of sushi

sushi via pixabay

Overfished species sell for record prices

The bluefin tuna is a victim of its own popularity. In the 1960s, it was used for cat food. But those days are long gone. Atlantic magazine reports that in 2013, Kiyoshi Kimura, the owner of a Japanese sushi restaurant chain, famously paid $1.76 million for a bluefin tuna at the world-famous Tsukiji fish market. The fish weighed 489 pounds. That’s a lot of fish, but it still adds up to a breathtaking $3,600 per pound, making it add up to $178 a piece.

Yikes! Of course, most sushi isn’t that expensive. Even bluefin. But bluefin is a perfect example of how enormous demand has fundamentally changed the market for seafood. Due to a combination of demand and overfishing, an animal that was thought fit for cat food just a few decades ago is considered an unbelievable delicacy.

Much of luxury is in the mind. We often value things because they are rare and because others want them. Sushi has become a bit of an extreme example of that.

As nations become wealthier, the demand for sushi and sashimi grows. I remember the first time I went to a Japanese restaurant with my husband (who is from South America). He had never eaten sushi before. He explained that sushi is very expensive in Latin America, and is definitely seen as a status symbol.

The true cost of sushi isn’t paid at the  restaurant

Sushi is a luxury, but it’s true cost is not paid when you hand over your credit card. The environmental cost of sushi is far greater.

If you haven’t seen it, I’d recommend watching Sushi: The Global Catch on  Netflix. The film focuses quite a bit on finding ethically sourced, environmentally friendly sushi, but it also makes it clear that doing so is nearly impossible.

And remember, in addition to depleting fish stocks and upsetting the predator/prey balance in the oceans, sushi is bad for your health as well. Beyond the cholesterol, many of the types of fish used in sushi are dangerously high in mercury (tuna and swordfish are some of the worst).

Shrimp is probably worse

Endangered species like bluefin tuna get a lot of attention from journalists. But the most plentiful species of marine animals are also causing problems. Shrimp is hardly endangered, but the FAO reports that for each pound of shrimp taken from the ocean, five pounds of other animals are killed. Why? Because of something called “bycatch”. Bycatch is the accidental catching of species other than the intended target. The majority of bycatch is returned to the ocean (largely dead), because it isn’t worth as much as shrimp.

Shrimp fishing doesn’t just hurt the ocean. It also has a devastating impact on humans as well. Stories of human slavery in Thailand’s shrimp industry have been coming to light in recent months. Unfortunately, this is likely to worsen as fish stocks in the West become further depleted and developing nations must satisfy the planet’s growing desire for seafood.

The bright side

Before I was vegan, sushi was one of my absolute favourite foods. It’s colourful, beautiful, and borders on ritual in its consumption. Thankfully, it is really easy to make vegan sushi that is just as beautiful as its fishy counterpart.

Since the foundation for most sushi rolls is rice and seaweed, there’s no problem with the basics. It just takes a bit of ingenuity to come up with more exciting alternatives to the dull cucumber roll (sorry, but it’s often the only vegan sushi item on the menu and I’m kind of sick of it).

If you’re at a japanese restaurant, be sure to ask if they have inuri sushi. Inari sushi is deep-fried tofu skin filled with rice. Not exactly the healthiest thing on earth, but absolutely delicious and totally vegan.

If there isn’t any great vegan sushi near where you live (or even if there is), you can make your own. There are some really great recipes out there. Pinterest has so many great ideas I don’t even know where to start. And remember – you can even top your sushi with vegan caviar!

This post is part 3 in a series on luxury foods. Our concept of luxury is deeply intertwined with the use of animals, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  Animal-free alternatives can be every bit as fantastic as their predecessors. In fact, they are are better, because they don’t hurt anyone!

What are your thoughts on sushi? Have you found any fish-free alternatives you’d like to share?

What do you think? Join the conversation!

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