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Seeking guilt-free sushi and sashimi

September 25, 2008 |  9:43 pm

Sushicards_2 You knew it had to happen. The fish-huggers who have for years put out wallet cards to help diners choose sustainable seafood, have finally focused on — what else? — sushi.

Some of the information on cards won't be all that palatable to sushi lovers, at least those who are especially susceptible to guilt.  Although these three guidebooks display a few differences, they collectively turn up their noses at quite a few popular sushi treats.

Many of the tunas, for instance, fall in the to-be-avoided column of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch card, sushi version. There's toro, of course, the Japanese name for the fatty tuna belly of the heavily overfished bluefin tuna. But also maguro, which is often bigeye and yellowfin tuna.

If you choose to follow these cards, forget about farmed shrimp, which is what's usually offered under the name ebi,  freshwater eel called unagi, and farmed salmon, known as sake. Sake is OK if it's wild Alaskan salmon. And some types of ebi are more sustainable than others. Good luck trying to find a sushi chef who can tell you about the origins of the salmon or shrimp in the case.

The three new cards will be officially unveiled Oct. 22 at Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar, which the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Ken Peterson described "as the only fully sustainable sushi restaurant in the United States."

And therein lies the point. These groups want sushi chefs and sushi bar owners to think about more than the freshness, appearance and quality of their fish. Their idea is to prompt customers to start asking questions, hoping the chefs will notice and begin to alter their menus in a way that will help over-exploited fish stocks recover. For the health-conscious, there are also red flags marking fish known to carry particularly heavy loads of mercury, PCBs or other contaminants.

So just what's left to eat, other than rice?

There's Pacific halibut (hirame) and albacore tuna (shiro maguro), skipjack tuna or bonito (katsuo),  Spanish mackerel (aji or sawara), bay scallops (hotate), striped bass (suzuki),  salmon eggs (ikura), arctic char (iwana), spot prawn (amaebi), giant clam (mirugai), sea urchin roe (uni) and, of course, California rolls made with imitation crab called kanikama or surimi.

The cards will also be available Oct. 22 on the websites of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Blue Ocean Institute and the Environmental Defense Fund.

— Kenneth R. Weiss

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