Sushi or not: Where we’re headed

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By 2030, the global community could lose 9.9 trillion dollars. Coastal cities and countries would face economic loss in both agriculture and tourism. 17% of all globally consumed protein would face a threat, the likes of which “not seen since the Antarctic palms of the Eocene, some 50 million years ago.” This could only mean one thing: my sushi intake would plummet, which is more than I would like. I like my sushi made of the highest quality caught-in-the-wild fish, the most nutritious seaweed, and crafted by the most skilled chefs to deliver my futomaki giant sushi rolls. The thing is, when the global economy loses its 9.9 trillion dollars worth of assets, I’m going to lose my tasty Maki sushi, my Nigiri sushi, my nori, and my sashimi, not to mention my giant sushi rolls. So, in the interest of preserving some damn good food, and a “holy shit” ton of money, I’m going to tell you how the future of sushi will be determined by the health of coral reefs around the globe.

Before we get to the sushi, I’ve got to explain what coral reefs are, and what they do, if anything at all. As stated by Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, corals are colonies of individual units, referred to as polyps. “On a reef, billions of polyps belonging to as many as a hundred different species are all devoting themselves to this same basic task.” that task is assembling one of the world’s most diverse and valuable ecosystems. You might think that the expanse of coral reefs would displace hundreds of species, as they invade the underwater territory, fragmenting the stability of fish, snapper, and lobster. To make a case in point, when humans construct vast cities, cropland, and suburbs, we diminish wildlife habitat. This, by consequence, threatens their populations, the ability to migrate, and the biodiversity of a species. The following universal rule applies for any habitat fragment: recolonization is so difficult, that in many cases it is simply impossible.

By this train of thought, corals would be the last thing I want to reside in the same oceans as my precious Katsuo and Hamachi (skipjack tuna and yellowtail fish). The thing is, that’s where Coral reefs differ from anthromes. “Instead of displacing other creatures, corals support them. Thousands — perhaps millions — of species have evolved to rely on coral reefs, either directly for protection or food, or indirectly, to prey on those species that come seeking protection or food.” That includes the tuna in my sashimi.

The United States, Canada, Japan, Russia, the Caribbean, and the Philippines are just a few countries with coastal reefs and a few that share in its economic value. This also means that they are a few that share in the risk of losing a high valued asset. Might I remind you that globally, seafood accounts for nearly a fifth of animal protein consumed by humans, which makes coastal cities the primary recipient of marine benefits and damages. How exposed are the reefs, you might ask. Reefs are highly vulnerable to two common phenomena: Ocean Acidification and rising ocean temperatures.

Ocean Acidification is a chemical reaction on a massive scale between water and carbon dioxide. When Carbon dioxide is absorbed and dissolves into seawater, hydrogen ions generate and acidify the world’s oceans. Acidity is measured on a pH scale, and it is crucial to keep the pH level of the sea steady. For example, to own and operate an aquarium, whether that be a fish tank or a pond, you must train in regulating acidity in your tank with an “aquarium water test kit.” Without this kit, all your fish would die from the acidic change. “Because it’s so important, we humans put a lot of energy into making sure that the pH of our blood is constant,” But some of these lower organisms, they don’t have the physiology to do that. They’ve just got to tolerate what’s happening outside, and so they get pushed beyond their limits.”

A rise in acidity also means a drop in critical nutrients for organisms, along with the saturation of carbonate ions for key bodies within our reefs, which make up the trillions worth around the world. Without carbonate, seaweed, and any living thing with a shell or bones will suffer from nutrient and physical deficiencies, leading to lower quality food, and a market that faces the decay of the source of its wealth. “Acidification may affect such basic processes as metabolism, enzyme activity, and protein function. Because it will change the makeup of microbial communities, it will alter the availability of key nutrients, like iron and nitrogen.” That means every living thing in our oceans is endangered, including the fish we need for sushi.

The other byproduct of our carbon emissions is the literal warming of the oceans. Already, fish schools have migrated out to ocean waters, reducing the worth of coral reefs, with “Mackerel so far from their continental home that fishermen chasing them are no longer bound by the rules set by the E.U.” This excess heat, absorbed from the emissions of our industrial economy, creates heat waves that strip reefs of up to 90% of the energy they need to survive. This occurrence, known as coral bleaching, has killed half of the great barrier reef, and 20% of reefs worldwide have succumbed to become a new layer in the ocean known as “a twilight zone.” “We don’t understand what a loss of biodiversity truly means, for pharmaceuticals, ecologically, and in so many other ways.”

“To the oceans, as to the human liver, rate matters.” Today, pH is at an average of 8.1, but the climb in carbon emission trends will undoubtedly mean a climb in acidity and marine death. “A decline of .1 means that the oceans are now thirty percent more acidic than they were in 1800.” The oceans absorb more than a fourth of our emissions each year, which does not bode well for life within it. “According to the World Resources Institute, by 2030, ocean warming and acidification will threaten 90% of all reefs.” We are about to lose a substantial amount of global coral forever. With that loss, reef fish will die, then the fish that depend on them, and all the way up the food chain. A scarcity of fish will mean an escalation of food prices, and by consequence, expensive sushi I will not be able to afford. Sushi aside, we need the ocean to regulate surface temperatures and absorb carbon so that we can breathe. “If what was happening to the reefs was happening somewhere we could all see, we’d be having a different collective reaction.” The bottom line is, “Thousands — perhaps millions — of species have evolved to rely on coral reefs, either directly for protection or food, or indirectly, to prey on those species that come seeking protection or food.” When these species lose their habitat, and waters like the Mediterranean develop dead zones of 7.8 pH, the marine ecosystem as a whole becomes threatened. That is not good when it is predicted to become “the first major ecosystem in the modern era to become ecologically extinct.”If coastal seas like the Mediterranean have experienced drops in biodiversity and nourished sea life due to ocean acidification, how do you think the coastal bays in Japan are doing?

Photo by Derek Duran on Unsplash

Sushi rolls commonly consist of rice, vegetables, seaweed, and fish. By 2030, half of those ingredients could be in jeopardy, given our current emission trends. If we do not change our “business as usual” track, then our sushi will verifiably worsen, as we hunt unhealthy fish while the population of fish drops. Today, the change of the supply of fish overtime is presently changing the notion of seafood from a commonality to a cuisine reserved for a special occasion. “Yellow croaker, a fish that used to be one of the most plentiful in Hong Kong, has become so expensive that wild-caught yellow croaker is really difficult to have on the dinner table even in a restaurant.” The Nippon Foundation Nereus program has determined that to the seafood industry as a whole, “Squid, shad, tuna, ark clams, shrimp, and salmon are all in trouble.” That just so happens to be most of the sushi menu.

If you thought the oceanic danger stopped at fish and coral species, think again. Five years ago, the Tokyo bay experienced a steady disappearance of seaweed. Sentiments among the local fishermen can be summarized as “Tough, and people are giving up.” The decline in nori production has unexpectedly led to rising prices, threatening a crucial piece of Japanese cuisine. “The most widely cultivated species originated in the north of Japan and its growing season does not start until the water temperature drops to 23°C (73 F).” Global warming has lowered the frequency of ocean temperature drops, hence increasing the difficulty of cultivating nori. As a result, multimillion-dollar seaweed drying lines drop in value since they are only used during the spring. To my dismay, this aligns with the trend of rising acidity in our coastal waters that Kolbert recorded way back in 2014.

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It is easy to respond to these allegations with quick, oversimplified solutions, one of them being: move farming to colder waters. That’s not an option for the seaweed industry and all the restaurants and imports that depend on them. “Only shallow, sheltered bays are suitable for growing nori in the stormy winter months, and there are few of those north of Tokyo.” Japan’s food-obsessed culture is resorting to imports in nori from Korea to fend off the ultimate indignity: nori-less sushi, wrapped in plastic. Another solution could be to expand fish farming, either with high demand, or government subsidies. Unfortunately, the cost of entering “fish culture” can be high compared to other agricultural commodities. “The start-up costs are often too high, and experience is needed to consistently produce a profitable harvest.” Assuming the land and water requirements are there, generating fish, keeping their accessible nutrients sustainable, and regularly cleaning the water tanks to prevent changes in pH, the introduction of deadly pathogens such as mercury, and filtering out their poop becomes costly. Farm-raised Salmon, yellowtail, and Bluefin Tuna are now unsustainable sources of fish protein, due to density and feed issues. Besides, wouldn’t it be better, practically and ethically, to focus on what can and is being done to save marine life rather than to speculate about a future of substandard sushi?

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

The good news is, possible solutions may lie in creativity. “There may be new inventions of new sushi using new fish that may become available.” Some sushi chefs are changing to ecologically conscious options, picking species like rockfish, striped bass, and king salmon. Another solution is to use something called Surimi: a composite of an untasty fish called Pollock, and artificial crab, thoughtfully and artisanally known as “Krab.” So, are we, along with the rest of the world, going to lose sushi? Yes. The sushi of today will likely be replaced with an inferior variant. However, are we going to lose sushi, technically? Yes, because there is no way in hell that I envision myself willingly consuming fake food. The industry will adapt to survive, whether that means using different fish or removing seaweed from the recipe. However, the worth, value, and caliber of coral reefs and their oceanic inhabitants will not. So maybe, just maybe, for the sake of appetizing sushi, let’s save our oceans.

Sources:

The Sixth extinction — Elizabeth Kolbert

The End of Ice — Dahr Jamail

The Uninhabitable Earth — David Wallace-Wells

Vice — https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/gvdpem/sushi-as-we-know-it-will-be-wiped-out-by-2050

La Times-

https://www.latimes.com/food/dailydish/la-fo-sustainable-seafood-michael-cimarusti-20170526-htmlstory.html

Financial times-

https://www.ft.com/content/6dec4d16-e5c1-11e9-9743-db5a370481bc

Langston University-

https://www.langston.edu/fish-farming-me

Colorado State University-

https://chhs.source.colostate.edu/wild-caught-vs-farm-raised-seafood/

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